Neighborhood Blog

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Health Matters

Over the past few years there has been increased attention given to the importance of healthy living as the rise in obesity rates continue to surge. This often leads to serious medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart attacks. Unfortunately, many urban communities are particularly susceptible to environmental dynamics that limit access to nutritious food, recreational activities and vital information on lifestyle and wellness.

Oftentimes, a significant  factor is the lack of affordable fresh produce and healthy eating options available to residents living in such areas known as 'food deserts'. A local example of a food desert is Farmers Boulevard in the St, Albans section of Queens. Currently, there is only one supermarket located along this commercial corridor. The Farmers Boulevard Development Corporation, the Queens Economic Development Corporation and Councilman Leroy Comrie have been working with area stakeholders to address the need for improved wellness in Southeast Queens through community outreach and events that promote physical activity and proper nutrition.

Recently, with support from the New York City Department of Small Business Services we co-sponsored the second annual Farmers Boulevard Health Fair. The event attracted over 200 participants who took part in exercise demonstrations by professional trainers, a panel discussion on nutrition & health, and distribution of fresh produce. Additionally, health care providers were stationed throughout the event to provide information on insurance, local resources, diseases and medical testing including blood pressure screening and instant HIV testing. Events such as health fairs and physical fitness activities are constructive for the community because they help to improve the well-being of residents as well as unites neighbors to come out and engage in a positive cause.

Public authorities have also been developing new initiatives to help combat health concerns associated with lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh meats and other healthy food and nonfood items. In may 2011, the New York City Council adopted a text amendment to expand the FRESH program to shopping corridors throughout Community Board 12 including Farmers Boulevard. The FRESH program, initiated in 2008 by the New York City Departments of Health & Mental Hygiene, City Planning, and the New York City Economic Development Corporation, provides zoning and tax incentives to facilitate and encourage the creation of full-line grocery stores.

The push to promote health & wellness is beneficial in more ways than just public health and improved quality of life. Health & wellness can be a major factor in stimulating economic development especially in under-served neighborhoods. For example, the Farmers Boulevard Health fair also served the purpose of highlighting development opportunities for a produce market and full-service restaurant. If successful, these additions will help create new jobs and bring much needed products & services to t he community. A new Walgreens Pharmacy opened on Farmers Boulevard earlier this Spring at a long-vacant site previously occupied by an under-performing supermarket. Many in the community are hopeful that the arrival of Walgreens is the beginning of key investments on Farmers Boulevard that will improve the economic and physical health of the neighborhood.   

posted by Ricardi Calixte - Director of Neighborhood Development, 
Queens Economic Development Corporation

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

"BIDding" on Liberty

Vibrant retail corridors play a significant role in promoting economic growth ad enhancing the appeal of a neighborhood. Healthy commercial districts attract consumer dollars from local residents along with shoppers from other areas. In many urban settings, the downtown or business district is often a reflection of a neighborhood. Healthy commercial districts attract consumer dollars from local residents along with shoppers from other areas. In many urban settings, the downtown or business district is often a reflection of the neighborhood population and its quality of life. At times, acknowledging a retail corridor is the easiest way to identify the geographic location of a neighborhood.

Most Queens neighborhoods, including those that are primarily residential, contain some type of nearby business corridor. Some corridors thrive, while others underperform. Generally, all successful shopping districts have some, or all, of the following characteristics. They are clean and pedestrian-friendly; offer a heterogeneous mix of retail options, accessible by public transportation; and hold a broad reputation as a shopping destination beyond its local customer base.

The Liberty Avenue commercial corridor in Richmond Hill indeed possesses some of these vital characteristics. This commercial corridor along Liberty Avenue, stretching from Woodhaven Boulevard to the Van Wyck Expressway, is home to more than 700 businesses. While there is a concentration of ethnic businesses that cater to a dominant Indian and Indo-Caribbean community, there is a diverse mix of national franchises and small businesses in basically all retail categories that parallels the needs of the general population. The commercial vacancy rate along this corridor is at a commendable 6 percent, During these challenging economic times, any retail strip that has commercial vacancy rates in the single digits is considered to be performing at an ultimate level. While this corridor is doing relatively well, it has not achieved its full potential. Liberty Avenue is not yet branded as a major retail destination compared to Jamaica Avenue in Downtown Jamaica or Main Street in Flushing.

One noticeable difference between the corridors is that Liberty Avenue does not have the services of a Business Improvement District. A BID is a public/private partnership in which property and business owners choose to make a collective contribution to the maintenance, development and promotion of their commercial district through a moderate increase in assessment. The district management association uses those funds for a variety of commercial revitalization initiatives, including but not limited to additional sanitation services, streetscape enhancements, commercial vacancy reduction and district marketing.

Establishing a BID for the Liberty Avenue commercial corridor would be a great way to address the need for additional sanitation services. The strip maintains a stretch of dense commercial uses that draws thousands of consumers and passers-by on a daily basis. The corridor also is home to multiple bus and subway stops. Such bustling commercial activity demands enhanced services.

The most significant role that a BID might have for Liberty Avenue is the marketing of the district through special events and promotions. This is because while the district seems vibrant and flushed with shoppers, many of them are local residents and workers taking advantage of the great retail options available nearby. The district will not be able to maximize its full economic potential until it is able to attract dollars from tourists and residents from distant neighborhoods throughout the city. With close proximity to the newly opened Resort World Casino at the Aqueduct Racetrack, Liberty Avenue businesses now have the opportunity to capitalize on a broader market of consumers. The district needs to promote itself to a broader population and outside residents in order to brand itself as a regional commercial destination for people of all demographic backgrounds. Many people who do not live in the immediate vicinity of Southern Queens are not aware of what Liberty Avenue has to offer.

Queens Economic Development Corporation is providing assistance to the Richmond Hill Economic Development Council with support from the New York City Department of Small Business Services to garner support for the creation of a Liberty Avenue BID. With proper planning and cooperation from community stakeholders, this BID will put Liberty Avenue on the map. The BID will help businesses grow, attract new investments, create new jobs, and improve quality of life for businesses, residents and shoppers on Liberty Avenue.

posted by Ricardi Calixte - Director of Neighborhood Development, 
Queens Economic Development Corporation

Monday, January 30, 2012

Strengthening NYC's Retail Corridors

QEDC's mission is to create and retain jobs through programming that grows our neighborhoods, assists small businesses and promotes tourism and business development. As we deal in all aspects of business development we have a good understanding of the challenges facing small business owners and conditions affecting economic growth in our shopping districts. While it is impossible to touch on all these issues in this short posting, I would like to point out some of the main concerns that our clients face and present some recommendations for city officials and community planners. I will address items comprised within three key categories for local economic development:

  • Small Business Assistance
  • Retail Corridor Improvement
  • Leadership Development

Small Business Assistance

Small businesses are the backbone of a thriving local economy. We must provide the necessary report to help new and existing small businesses maximize their capacities to provide needed goods and services. Starting and operating a business in New York City can be a daunting task. Many aspiring entrepreneurs are not able to grasp the comprehensive process involved in establishing a new business. The creation of the online business resource center NYC Business Express provides an additional tool for entrepreneurs to access information although it cannot replace the need for meeting with a professional business advisor that can give immediate feedback and answer questions. The NYC Business Solution Centers and technical assistance providers such as QEDC which provides guidance and training in all stages of business development need to receive greater support.

Innovative entrepreneurs need access to the capital to start a new venture. We should continue to grow and support our network of business incubators that prepares small businesses to go out and occupy vacant storefronts. Many of the City's business incentive programs do not apply to the mom n pop type establishments that keep our neighborhood corridors thriving.

In my role at QEDC, I have constant dialogue with existing business owners in various commercial districts in Queens. A few common themes frequently arise in those discussions. Among these is what they view as excessive business taxes and fees, overregulation and red tape at city agencies, and unwarranted fines. Most recently, the merchant organization in Richmond Hill notified me that the Department of Sanitation removed several litter baskets along Liberty Avenue and have since been issuing summonses for sidewalk trash to multiple businesses. In another example, we have a client who bought a building in order to open a new catering hall. We connected the client to the City's NBAT (New Business Acceleration Team) program and while he was granted construction permits through NBAT, a technical issue occurring with the Department of Buildings have not allowed them to proceed with the project. The owner has made several attempts to resolve the issue with DOB, with little success in getting direct feedback regarding his case. In the meantime he continues to pay a mortgage on a property with no revenue coming in to offset his costs. These types of incidents lead to a disconnect between merchants and city government, causing many business owners to become discouraged and miss out on economic opportunities.

Retail Corridor Improvement

Thriving retail corridors have common characteristics. They are clean and pedestrians friendly; offer a heterogeneous mix of retail options; accessible by public transportation; and can attract shoppers beyond its local customers base. in order to strengthen NY C's retail corridors, planners and city  officials should focus on initiatives that aid in achieving these characteristics.

Capital funding should be invested to make physical improvements to our corridors to ensure that they are attractive, safe and conductive to doing business. improvements to our transportation infrastructure which allows for multimodal access to shoppers districts are of vital importance. We have a growing and aging population that needs to be taken into consideration in future designs of our landscape and transportation system.

many retail corridors have fallen prey to the economic downturn. As part of the overall goal to create new jobs, City government should work in collaboration with business organizations and real estate professionals to attract new business to our retail corridors. Our retail corridors needs to be marketable in order to attract new investments. Often, this task is left up to volunteer- based merchant organizations that lack the capacity and resources to effectively promote their business. The City should work to provide more support and technical assistance services to these organizations.

Leadership Development

In more cases, resources aimed at improving economic activity on our retail corridors are coordinated at the neighborhood level by a locally based business development organization including merchant associations, local development corporations, and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). City officials should continue to work with these organizations and provide the necessary support to help them with keeping their districts vibrant.

In order to be effective, these business organizations need strong leaders that know their communities well and understand the intricacies of local economic development. It is very important that these leaders have access to proper training and technical assistance to develop strong programs that improve their neighborhood corridors.

To this end, I would like to commend the Department of Small Business Services for supporting the Neighborhood Leadership Program with Coro. I had the wonderful opportunity of being a participant in the first cohort at this program this past year. This program is a 5 month, part -time training program that provide neighborhood leadership with the skill and experience needed to lead change and improve their communities. I have personally gained a better understanding of community planning, networking, public speaking, consensus building and have applied these types of programs and continue to work with community leaders in developing successful strategies to strengthen our neighborhood retail corridors. 

posted by Ricardi Calixte - Director of Neighborhood Development, 
Queens Economic Development Corporation


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Festival of Colors

The Phagwah Parade, also referred to as the "Festival of Colors" is held every March in Richmond Hill. The event celebrates the Hindu spring holiday known as "Holi", welcoming the Spring season and represents a celebration of good over evil. The presentation of various colors in the form of dye and powder on bodies and clothing is a key feature of the festivities. In many ways this spectrum of colors symbolizes the various cultures and traditions exhibited in Richmond Hill. The parade starts at Liberty Avenue and 133rd St. and ends with thousands of people gathering at Smokey Oval Park on 95th Avenue to enjoy singing, dancing, and powdering.

Indo-Caribbean pride was clear and present at this year's Phagwah Parade held on March 11th. Soirees and other ethnic clothing adorned parade participants on the floats. The variety of entities that sponsor these floats, from local businesses, to religious organizations and civic groups, represents the active participation and commitment that community stakeholders hold in their neighborhood, people and history. The event drew an estimated 25,000 people, not withstanding the countless bodies hanging out of residential windows along the parade route.

Richmond Hill serves as the cultural hub of the Indo-Caribbean community in New York City. Indeed, the green, yellow, and red emblems found on the flag of Guyana and the red and black colors of Trinidad are commonplace on storefront facades and residential windows. There are three major retail districts (Liberty Ave, Jamaica Ave, 101 Ave) in Richmond Hill, each with distinct characteristics, yet all a reflection of the people and energy of the community. Beautiful Mandir buildings and Indian establishments line 101 ave., with the Guyanese and Trinidadian community well represented on Liberty Ave, along with a Latin and Caribbean presence on Jamaica Avenue.

As the population of this community grows its presence in Queens strengthens. In a county of many ethnic neighborhoods, Richmond Hill has developed into one of the most diverse communities as reflected by its people and businesses. Indeed, as locals celebrate the Festival of colors, much needs to be praised about the endless reflections being produced from the neighborhoods greatest assets: its people, its culture, its pride.

posted by Ricardi Calixte - Director of Neighborhood Development, 
Queens Economic Development Corporation