No one said business was great at the Local Summit’s meeting on local business conditions, held December 15th at the Nautilus Diner. This included the program’s panel of four local business leaders and the many audience members who commented.
Some said business was “okay, considering.”
Some were a bit angry.
Some talked around the subject, but dropped hints.
The panelists were Jeff Rosenberg, president of the Larchmont Chamber of Commerce, Jennifer Graziano, president of the Mamaroneck Chamber; Rose Silvestro, chair of the Mamaroneck Avenue Task Force and Jenny Siegel, manager of Anderson’s Book Store. Heide Sickles was meeting chair.
A Good December for Anderson’s, “Considering”
Ms. Siegel allowed what many of her audience already knew — book stores suffer in downturns. No one needs a book to survive. And at this time it’s especially hard for independent book stores like hers to compete with big box stores and Amazon, which dangle heavy discounts. It’s even hard for stores like hers to eat the fees from credit card transactions. Further, she admitted, quite a number of book readers no longer buy books, but read them on their Kindles or go to the public library.
But despite these economic impediments, some nice things were afoot, she said. “We are having a good December.” Quite a number of customers are still buying books because “they want to give presents of substance this year.” Another bright spot is that the children’s department is doing very well. People are not stinting on children’s books, educational items, and even some toys. “They’re selling very well.”
“We haven’t let anyone go, but we have reduced some hours,” she said. She added that her employees are a key to why people come to the store in the first place. “Unlike the big box stores, we don’t set customers adrift. Our employees understand books and they help our customers find what they need.”
Another firm doing “okay, considering,” is Murphy Brothers, contractors. Sean Murphy, co-owner, speaking from the audience, said, “Wall Street executives are holding off on new construction and big renovations.” Murphy Brothers has had to do some reinvention. One step was to hire a professional marketing manager to help build sales, a task that was superfluous a few years ago. The company now is picking up many little jobs, such as kitchen and bathroom renovations.
Also, they are pushing further into “green” construction. They’ve built a model, ecologically “green” house in Armonk that has generated a lot of talk. Mr. Murphy believes there will be “green” business down the road. Also, the marketing manager has begun a relationship-building program with architects, looking forward to a turn in the economy.
Absentee Landlords Blasted
One softly angry voice was that of Mr. Rosenberg, business banker at Larchmont’s Citibank branch. He told of various steps the newly reconstituted Larchmont Chamber of Commerce is taking to build business, from working with city hall so new businesses can come in and set up shop with less red tape, to increasing the numbers of weekend shoppers with free horse-drawn carriage rides.
But Mr. Rosenberg showed a bit of heat under the collar when he told about landlord imposed roadblocks to improving the attractiveness of the shopping district. He said there are quite a few empty stores now, one of which has been empty for more than a year. The Chamber had arranged with some of the local art galleries and others to set up attractive holiday displays in otherwise grim unrented store windows. “People shop where it’s attractive,” he said.
Unfortunately, he was unable to connect with absentee landlords or their out-of-town realty firms. He said they showed little local interest or understanding. “We called Californa, we called Florida —we couldn’t raise anyone. It was like chasing ghosts,” he noted.
Panel member Jennifer Graziano, who is a principal in Coxe & Graziano, concurred: in Mamaroneck there also is absentee owner disregard for the local economy. She said that the Mamaroneck Chamber has undertaken a number of steps to help businesses in these tough times, but she didn’t think it was the Chamber’s place to ask landlords to modify arrangements or reduce rents.
Are There Too Many Banks?
Community activist Mariana Boneo and journalist Mimi Koren both asked why local Chambers don’t insist on better retail diversification. “Do we need so many banks?” they asked.
Ms. Graziano said it is a slippery slope for a Chamber of Commerce or a local government to start infringing on the prerogatives of business in a free-enterprise economy.
Panelist Silvestro, who wears a second hat as a local Hudson Valley Bank branch manager, said that there are 13 banks for about 18,000 residents in Mamaroneck Village. She allowed that this might be more banks than needed. “Banks go where they believe the deposits are,” she said. She denied the frequent charge that banks are not lending, however. “Some of the national banks may have pulled out,” she said, “but local banks are lending, though cautiously and with stringent credit required.”
Would It Help to Cut Local Sales Taxes?
NYS Assemblyman George Latimore lofted a hypothetical question: would business improve if there were a reduction in the local sales tax? Ms. Graziano said that since New Jersey and Connecticut have a lower sales tax and are relatively nearby, reducing the local tax was bound to help. Ms. Siegel said that “nobody goes to New Jersey to buy a book. It wouldn’t pay for the gasoline.” An audience member, however, noted she had just returned from New Hampshire where there is no sales tax. She goes there for Christmas and school shopping every year. “With a family with four children, it really makes a difference,” she said.
Emmy-Lou Sleeper, an audience member and realtor, commented after the meeting that while real estate transactions currently are down, she fully expects them to pick up after the first of the year. “Isn’t that merely intuition?” she was challenged. “Yes, but I’ve been operating on intuition for 46 years,” she responded.
The Local Summit, which hosted the meeting, is an informal community council that seeks to make the community a better place to live for everyone. It holds a regular meeting at 7:45 a.m., the third Tuesday of the month at the Nautilus Diner in Mamaroneck. Harold Wolfson is a member of the Local Summit Board.