SOUTH STREET SEAPORT — The head of the federal Small Business Administration (SBA) and a bevy of elected officials walked the South Street Seaport Tuesday, examining flooded storefronts and stepping across sawdust-covered floors to survey Hurricane Sandy damage.
SBA head Karen Mills toured many of the neighborhood's hardest-hit restaurants and shops, where owners are in the midst of major repair work that has left many shuttered and some stores months away from reopening. She reiterated Washington's political commitment to rebuild the area.
"Sit down with one of our counselors who are in this area," she told the crowd. "They are free. They will look at your business plan and make a path forward."
She said the SBA has already approved $20 million in loans since Sandy struck last month.
"This is a long-term recovery. We're going to be here. We are going to be here for the months and weeks ahead," she said.
Restaurant and shop owners in the Seaport said they're grateful for the attention, but many are uncertain about the government aid that's being offered. Nearly all of it is in the form of recovery loans that eventually need to be paid back — an option many businesses can't afford because they're overwhelmed with other storm-related expenses.
"I'm two years into this business and I'm already in debt and under water," said Sandra Tedesco, owner of two Front Street bars, Keg 229 and Bin 220. "No pun intended."
Business owners hurting from Hurricane Sandy can apply for two types of low-interest SBA loans, Mills said. One will help with the cost of damaged property and the other, an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, is designed to plug the revenue gap for businesses that suffered power outages and displaced customers.
Todd Haiman, who runs his own landscape-design firm on Water Street, said he's still paying off a 30-year SBA recovery loan he took after the 9/11 attacks.
"If you're already paying off a loan, you're going to end up taking on additional debt. How difficult is that going to be? Then you have two loans to pay off," he said, adding the government should be offering grants instead.
"That becomes an investment, which the city gets back."
Kevin Barry, of Grandma's House restaurant on Peck Slip, said he didn't qualify for some of the recovery loans being offered, and that others require collateral he just doesn't have after losing everything in the storm.
"They want collateral. They want your first born," he said. "They want to be able to make sure they’ll get their money back."
Barry applied for a loan offered by the city and Goldman Sachs but said he was turned down because he only opened in July and hadn't operated for at least a year, a requirement he was told is to prevent fraud.
“I built a half-a-million-dollar restaurant and brought a hurricane up here from Florida just to defraud you," he scoffed.
Adam Weprin, whose family has owned The Bridge Cafe on Water Street for decades, said they are wary of taking out loans to rebuild. He cited the haphazard nature of the restaurant business and an uncertainty that the Seaport's customer base — many local residents and downtown office workers were also displaced by the storm — will come back strong enough to make the cafe viable again.
"I really, really can't do a loan," he said, saying he plans to apply for the one grant program that's been announced so far. The Downtown Alliance announced on Monday that it is raising funds to give out grants of up to $20,000 to eligible lower Manhattan businesses. The Alliance is contributing $1 million and appealing to others for additional donations.
It's a start, Weprin and others said, but the city need more programs like it.
"That’s helpful. [But] I thought, $20,000, what's that? That’s my oven," he said.
Still, many owners said it is a comfort to see a strong show of support from their elected officials. As Mills toured the Seaport on Tuesday, she was joined by Rep. Jerry Nadler, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, state Sen. Daniel Squadron and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, among other local leaders.
"It’s a positive thing. At least you see all these politicians coming down here," said Claudio Marini, an owner at Barbarini Mercato, a restaurant and Italian market on Front Street.
He watched his entire store wash away after Sandy struck, he said, leaving his imported Italian cheeses floating in the street out front. He was the second store to open on Front Street when he launched his business in 2006, as Lower Manhattan recovered from the 9/11 attacks. Since then, he has watched the Seaport grow into a thriving, vibrant destination spot.
"Now, it's a ghost town," he said. "I came here at night, and it's so depressing. Just security guards."