Longtime Boerum Hill resident and Boerum Hill Associaton President Howard Kolins was named the new Interim Executive Director of the Atlantic Avenue Local Development Corporation on May 13. At a time when many of the small shops that line Brooklyn’s Main Street are shuttered, the role has taken on a completely new meaning. Brooklyn Paper caught up with Kolins to talk about his new position. (This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Brooklyn Paper: This is quite a time to assume a position like this. Can you tell me how you ended up starting during this unprecedented period?
Howard Kolins: I’ve been President of the Boerum Hill Association for a decade, so I have relationships with a few people on the board. I am an event producer by profession, but the live events businesses is completely dormant. We had a conversation about how I could help them in this transition time for them and I said, “Sure.” That’s really what brought me to the seat.
BP: What role does the Local Development Corporation play in the neighborhood?
HK: The LDC promotes Atlantic Avenue and has been interested in historic preservation over the years. They are the producer of The Antic, the most visible event that takes place on Atlantic Avenue and this is the biggest task for the LDC. They also do other promotional events at Christmas. They have a scholarship program, they’re working on a wellness program. They’ve been a long time activist for promoting and preserving Atlantic Avenue. There are other organizations that have also on the Avenue, of course, the BID (Business Improvement District) and ABBA (Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association) that also play roles, but The Antic as a major way to promote the Avenue has been a big chunk of their activity.
BP: This is obviously an unprecedented time for many of the small businesses that line Atlantic Avenue. What have you been hearing from local business owners? Do they have any consensus on what the immediate future might hold for them?
HK: It changes depending on what type of business you are. When you’re down where Sahadi’s is and Damascus Bakery is, there are people who have their businesses open and they’re working. Not to the level they were before, but if you’re a non-food merchant, you are totally closed. Everybody is in that wait and see mode and they’d like to open up, they’d like to have their business activity on some level expanded. But most of the talk has been about things like PPP, and grant programs, and how long you can hang on until things open up a bit.
BP: What else can the city, state, federal governments be doing to assist these businesses?
HK: I think it became obvious for anyone who applied for PPP that the June 30th deadline for spending money for your employees was unworkable. Fine, if you can give the money to your employees, but not workable for you as a business and then June 30th was already when people were getting their money, they realized that that deadline wasn’t useful. If you’re a restaurant and if you’re coming back to 50 percent or lower, it’s even less useful. I think it’s a dilemma for people.
Do I like the money? I would like forgiveness, but this timeframe doesn’t work for me. In the recent round of legislation on the federal level, there was a proposal to extend that time period. That’s not going to make it through the Senate. That’s one thing that would help a lot of people right away, as well as the discussion that’s going on now with the federal government between Powell and Mnuchin. People, in this city particularly, need a bigger timeframe, a longer timeframe, and they need probably more additional assistance. The unemployment got extended to 39 weeks, but the next thing would be, for a lot of people, like in the crisis a decade ago, with the economic crisis, it went further. It went to, I think, 99 weeks finally.
There is some precedent, there are other things that need to take place, but businesses need another round of support. PPP is limited with what you can spend the money on. The whole rent conundrum goes beyond just the businesses here, rent for everybody. I don’t pay my rent, my landlord doesn’t pay the rent to the bank, make the note. There needs to be more stimulus, there needs to be a real look at how we help people and how we maintain these small businesses because as I say, the businesses are the lifeblood.
BP: An idea that’s been floated by some business advocates and politicians is allowing restaurants to kind of spill out onto sidewalks for open-air dining. That would be in collaboration with some of the open streets programs that have been rolled out around the city. Is that something that seems feasible on Atlantic Avenue to you?
HK: It’s more complicated here because it’s a truck route and even with the reduced activity, there’s still a good deal of traffic on the street. Maybe possible in a limited way, on weekends, but that’s to be determined. I think the median step, which has already been discussed in the city council, would be to waive the DOT requirements about sidewalk permits. Even in this limited opening, it would be wonderful if we could get the merchants to be able to come out onto the sidewalk in some organized fashion and to get the restaurants to be out there socially distancing, that would be a big help.
There’s two factors here. One is letting people know you still exist, your business is still here. The second one is raising the level of business that you’re doing. If you’re totally closed and at zero, you want to get up further. Atlantic Avenue was known for many, many years as an antique avenue, now it’s a fashion avenue. Some people may have winter stock. You have a great BOGO sale available to you if we could get out in the sunshine and make this work. It’s easier for, say the Montague Street BID, to close Montague Street, than it is for us to close Atlantic Avenue. But on a limited basis, on a Saturday, on a Sunday, that would be fabulous.