Willets Point business owners need more time
by Andrew Shilling
Nov 25, 2013 | 1610 views | 0 0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Arturo Olaya, State Senator Tony Avella and Willets Point business owners gather on the steps of City Hall.
Arturo Olaya, State Senator Tony Avella and Willets Point business owners gather on the steps of City Hall.
Avella and Olaya call for an additional six months to the current relocation plan.
Avella and Olaya call for an additional six months to the current relocation plan.
Dozens of business owners along the roughly 60-acre tract of auto-repair shops in Willets Point are calling for more time to relocate as the city makes way for the first phase of a $3 billion redevelopment plan.

To date, the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) has reported that just 30 businesses have successfully taken advantage of the nearly $15.5 million in funding allocated from the city to relocate.

That is approximately $800,000 according to a representative at EDC, however some owners say there are still well over 100 businesses that need to be moved.

State Senator Tony Avella joined dozens of those owners on the steps of City Hall last week to call for a six-month extension on the January 2014 deadline, to allow more preparation time for those still unable to find a new space.

“The current relocation plan falls far short in what the tenants need to relocate and what they deserve,” Avella said. “Many of these businesses have yet to find a place to relocate to, even with the city’s purported help, yet they are supposed to vacate in less than two weeks in order to receive full payment.”

According to the relocation policy, EDC would pay businesses that agree to vacate by November 30, the equivalent of 12 months of the current rent rate, while those that stay through January 2014 would receive six months of rent. There is no financial support for relocation following the end of January.

The city partnered with a business relocation company called Cornerstone Group in 2012 to facilitate the relocation process, however Avella questioned their due diligence in assessing the layout and finding new locations.

This comes in light of his findings from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

“Cornerstone is not doing the proper job by not giving them the proper information to relocate,” Avella said, noting that he plans to file for a request of an investigation against Cornerstone with the U.S. Department of Justice. “It was just a picture of an individual building with a listing of what the rent would be like if you wanted to buy it. I could have done that.”

HPD supported EDC's hiring of Cornerstone, and said they have in fact reached out to all businesses in the neighborhood and followed the agreement.

“Cornerstone has contacted all businesses on record who are on city-owned property in phase 1, multiple times, and has identified over 140 available sites for relocation of businesses of varying sizes,” said a spokesperson with HPD.

Arturo Olaya, owner of Arturo’s Auto Trim Shop, said he has lost faith in the city through the process.

“The people are not being relocated, the people are being evicted,” Olaya said.

Olaya has been in the neighborhood for 18 years, and said he just hopes his customers will not be lost following a move.

“The city is not treating us like a real American,” he said.

Olaya and the business owners also accused the city of renegotiating their rents downward in an attempt to decrease the payout for relocation.

A spokesperson with HPD responded that the city offered lower rents at the request of individual businesses, however adding that the claim is unrelated to the offering from the EDC.

“Businesses have occasionally requested that HPD lower their rents, and we have agreed to do so if they could provide verification that they were paying the lower rate prior to the acquisition of the site,” said the spokesperson. “The business have been asking for lower rents long before EDC started offering the supplemental benefit payment option this past summer.”

Several business owners at the rally accused Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras for making closed door deals to speed along the development process. Although she would not say whether she would support the relocation extension proposal, she stands behind the plan already in place.

After pointing negotiations with the Queens Development Group towards allocating the $15.5 million in relocation assistance, issuing funding to groups like the Queens Chamber of Commerce for community outreach, the EDC for technical assistance and the Department of Small Business Services for marketing, Ferreras said, “It is my hope that these benefits will be utilized to their fullest in the relocation of the existing businesses at Willets Point.”

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