By Iryna Shkurhan |[email protected]
City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams joined City Councilmember Lynn Schulman on a tour of small businesses in Forest Hills on Thursday, June 15.
The goal was to gauge the opinions of business owners and their employees on economic concerns, street design and any other frustrations they may have. Many expressed struggles to attract customers and generate the same level of revenue prior to the pandemic, while others shared their thoughts on how to improve the design of bustling Austin Street.
Thomas Grech, the President and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, also joined them in going door to door to offer businesses resources on how to expand in today’s digital age, such as social media promotion.
“I really felt good about showing the speaker, all the diversity of the store owners and the kinds of small businesses we have and all of their unique stories,” said Schulman in an interview with the Queens Ledger. “That’s what makes a community, the local mom and pop shops.”
Thank Heaven, a children’s boutique selling baby clothing and toys, is a family run business that has sat on Austin St. for the past 19 years. The owner, Ariena Thomsen, expressed that business has been slow, especially following the pandemic.
“It’s not nearly what it used to be when I first opened,” said Thomsen during the tour.
To stay afloat during the crisis, she took out loans because she was not entitled to pandemic government loan programs because she has no employees. Now she is stuck with paying off the debt, despite less incoming business. And competing with online retailers like Amazon has made it even more difficult to generate revenue.
“We know that while business is improving, it’s not improving for everyone,” said Schulman. “And so we need to help them in certain ways.”
The owner of Renegade Hair Salon, which has been in business in Forest Hills for decades, expressed similar concerns about slower business following the pandemic.
“It’s a lot slower, people are letting their gray grow out, people have really long hair,” said owner Tony Rinkon.
He also complained that there is constant traffic and honking on Austin St. where his storefront stands. And many of his customers blame the traffic and congestion on the street when they come in late for appointments.
“All day long you hear honking,” he said, while expressing to the speaker and councilwoman that he is in favor of converting the street to a one way to create better flow. “If you tried to make the street like they say a pedestrian only might as well shut every store down immediately,” Rinkin added.
Other people in the neighborhood believe that banning cars from Austin St. is the best solution to make the street safer for pedestrians and cyclists, without hurting businesses in the process.
Pedro Rodriguez, a longtime Forest Hills resident, and founder of a safer Austin St. collective, joined the tour to convey support for making segments of Austin St. car free.
“The reality is, the current conditions are preventing certain people from coming here. So there’s a lot more people that will come here more often, but cannot,” said Eric Zolov, a Forest Hills resident who was biking past the tour.
Schulman said that she commissioned the Department of Transportation to conduct a survey of Austin St. to determine what redesign solutions are best.
“As we heard on this tour, there are concerns about congestion, noise, the proliferation of illegal smoke shops, the need for more foot traffic, and additional support needed from all levels of government,” said Speaker Adams in an email to the Queens Ledger. “It’s critical that we continue to listen to our small businesses and local merchants to better understand their challenges and concerns.”