Like so many small Long Island businesses over the past year, Claudy’s Beauty Supply in Uniondale has faced unimaginable challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Owner Elsie Damus and her husband Claude have both been hospitalized with COVID-19. The store closed for four months. Major corporate clients bailed out. Sales fell by at least 80% and, reluctantly, the family business decided it couldn’t fund three annual scholarships for Uniondale High School graduates.
Yet when Elsie Damus – a Haitian immigrant who founded the business 36 years ago – applied for federal financial assistance from a local bank, she was turned down and said the store did not qualify. No reason was given, the family said.
“If we are not seen as a minority business, as a business owned by women, then who qualifies?” said Damus’ daughter, Nancy Nemorin. “A small business like ours, how do you know what we are qualified for?”
The story was similar for minority-owned businesses all over the island.
In a report released earlier this month, the Rauch Foundation found that small businesses in a sample of 30 major city centers had reported substantial revenue losses as COVID-19 spread across the island.
The Garden City-based nonprofit said the problems were particularly acute in minority communities. Although about 1% of downtown stores have closed island-wide, that figure rose to 10% in Central Islip, the nonprofit said.
The foundation said higher rates of COVID-19 infections in low-income areas were a problem. But companies like Claudy have also struggled to obtain loans, expand online marketing, and receive government assistance such as the federal paycheck protection program.
“The technology available to some businesses in minority communities was not at the same or the same level as businesses outside of minority downtown areas,” said Kevin Law, co-chair of the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council, who helped publicize the report.
“Many minority-owned businesses have found it more difficult to access the federal stimulus funds made available,” said Law, executive vice president of developer Tritec Real Estate in East Setauket. “All of these things combined was like a triple whammy to negatively impact minority city centers.”
The Rauch Foundation report, prepared by Manhattan-based human resources advisors, included suggestions for 11 short- and long-term ‘interventions’ to support struggling downtown areas, such as store footfall in crisis, relaxing zoning regulations and updating aging business districts.
In an online forum on May 12 to discuss the report, former Greenport Mayor David Kapell said the village has helped its bars and restaurants by relaxing parking restrictions to allow alfresco dining.
“If we hadn’t done something, we were worried about having a ghost town in September,” said Kapell, a real estate broker. “The result was really spectacular”, with some restaurants “having declared their best year of their life”.
Damus, 80, says she hopes it’s not too late to save her business from liquidation. Her dream has always been to leave the store so her children and grandchildren can operate – a dream that now seems tenuous at best, she said.
“I don’t want to shut down the business. The business is helping the community,” Damus said. “I want to do the best of everything to keep this business going.”
Rebuilding city centers
Highlights of the “interventions” suggested by the Rauch Foundation to save ailing downtown businesses:
1. Financial support. Design new grant and loan programs and remove barriers to accessing aid – especially in low-income and minority communities.
2. Economic development. Create small business support agencies, similar to New York’s Department of Small Business Services.
3. Technology. Help small businesses access high speed and free Wi-Fi; create an online shopping portal modeled on Amazon.
4. Flexibility. Develop creative zoning to allow reuse of vacant storefronts.
5. The great outdoors. Make alfresco dining – in parking lots, sidewalks and squares – a permanent feature of city centers.
6. Open streets. Temporarily close downtown roads on certain days to allow pedestrians to mingle and shop.