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New Grassroots Groups Navigate Fundraising for Red Hook Businesses

By Alan Neuhauser | November 14, 2012 3:46pm

RED HOOK — Red Hook businesses wiped out by Hurricane Sandy and faced with taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to rebuild have joined forces to raise millions for the neighborhood's recovery effort.

Restore Red Hook, formed by a handful of retail and restaurant owners on Van Brunt Street, is seeking $2 million in donations, which it will distribute to about 50 brick-and-mortar stores and eateries in the neighborhood. Red Hook Volunteers, founded by a member of Occupy Sandy, an affiliate of Occupy Wall Street, has raised several thousand dollars to put toward a more immediate, as-needed fund for both businesses and tenants.

Both groups are expected to be discussed at a community meeting on the recovery effort in Red Hook, scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday at P.S. 27.

"For all of us to get strong again, we all need everyone together to survive. It's not, 'I survived and you didn't," said Monica Byrne, one of Restore's founders and an owner of Homemade restaurant on Van Brunt Street, which sustained major flooding in the stem.

"In a small community like this one, everyone is so intertwined."

Red Hook, home to about 12,000 New Yorkers, sustained some of the worst flooding during Sandy, which sent salt water into the basement and first floor of virtually every home and business on and around Van Brunt Street, the neighborhood's main commercial strip. The Red Hook Houses, Brooklyn's largest public housing complex with more than 8,000 residents, lacked any power until Saturday, and many apartments and businesses there throughout the neighborhood are still without electricity, heat or hot water.

"We lost tons of inventory," said St. John Frizell, a Restore board member and owner of Fort Defiance Cafe and Bar on Van Brunt Street, as he filled out a loan application for $25,000. "$8,000 in wines and spirits. $5,000 in food. Three compressors in the basement, $1,000 to $5,000 each." Not being able to open has alone cost Frizell $7,000.

Loans are largely the only way for the city's disaster-devastated small businesses to raise capital needed for repairs — few are eligible for government grants, and fundraising efforts around New York have almost exclusively focused on collecting donations for food, water, clothing and other essentials for residents displaced or still without heat or power from Sandy.

 "There's absolutely nothing out there for us," Frizell said. "We've just been completely left out."

Even the low-interest loans that government agencies offer for disaster recovery are often too much for small businesses.

"The idea of taking on more debt and more lans is really, really horrible for us," Byrne said.

Hence the grassroots fundraising effort — unfamiliar territory for many business owners in the neighborhood.

"This is all new for everybody," said Kirby Desmarais, 26, who describes herself as simply "a Red Hook resident," but organized Red Hook Volunteers. "We're just trying to get more funds and trying to do this the right way."