Merchant mutiny! Ft. Greene and C’Hill entrepreneurs turn on local biz-booster group

Bad for business: Ft. Greene entrepreneurs claim new Fulton bus lanes will hurt bottom lines
Photo by Zoe Freilich

It’s a bid problem.

Leaders of the business-improvement district charged with promoting commerce in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill better step up their game, or the mom-and-pops that foot the so-called bid’s budget want out, according to irate shopkeepers.

“Get rid of the bid. It’s garbage, the bid does nothing for us,” said Ralph Jawad, who runs two Fulton Street businesses and a Lafayette Avenue deli within the organization’s domain. “All of Fulton Street is paying money to it, and what is the bid doing for us?”

Many of the enraged entrepreneurs said that Fulton Area Business Alliance bid bigwigs’ failure to stop the Department of Transportation from starting to add dedicated bus lanes to a stretch of Fulton Street spanning Fort Greene and Clinton Hill last November was the last straw after years of neglect from the organization.

Shopkeepers blasted the lanes as bad for business because they would increase congestion, reduce parking, and complicate deliveries, and chastised bid leaders for disregarding their concerns when they supported the infrastructure plan at the time.

But the controversial bus lanes are just the latest example of the bid’s failure to improve its commercial district — which incorporates Fulton Street between Ashland Place and Classon Avenue; Lafayette Avenue between Ashland Place and S. Portland Street; and parts of Greene and Putnam avenues.

The business owners are also fed up with its allegedly subpar promotion of their shops, inadequate security services, and poor management of area construction work — including the city’s long-delayed transformation of Fulton Street’s triangular pedestrian island Fowler Square into an open plaza, a makeover the bid conceived of way back in 2010.

“They were building this pedestrian plaza and it took longer than expected, which hurt everyone around the triangle. And the bid was the lead on this project,” said Dimitrios Koutroumanos, the owner of Academy Restaurant on Lafayette Avenue. “The scheduling was pretty horrific.”

And now many shopkeepers are tired of paying the taxes that fund the organization, which collects varying amounts of cash from the entrepreneurs based on their store frontage and other factors to subsidize its annual $480,000 budget — money it should use towards street beautification, security, and other services that roughly two dozen business owners said are lacking in a letter they recently penned to the city asking for a way out.

“The bid has not just failed to improve our lives, it has unimproved them. Our unhappiness with FAB has only grown over time,” read the April 30 letter to the Department of Small Business Services, where officials provide support to individual bids, but do not have a say in their operations.

But the dissatisfied shopkeepers are forgetting that bid leaders actually reduced the amount of regulations the Transportation Department wanted to enact with the Fulton Street bus lanes, according to the business booster’s head.

“People have been going around telling businesses things that are not true. We testified at the community board, reached out to DOT and elected officials, and as a result DOT cut the bus proposal’s street parking limitations by 50 percent,” said Phillip Kellogg. “And FAB secured additional loading zones to help with the businesses to send and receive.”

The bid is also collaborating with New York’s Finest to better protect its member businesses, and working on ways to improve its communication with shopkeepers, whose best interests remain its top priority, Kellogg said.

“We actively and aggressively work with NYPD and other law enforcement agencies, and have been recognized for our efforts,” he said. “We have been ramping up our outreach, and going directly to businesses to hear their concerns, answer their questions, and correct any misinformation they’ve heard. We’re going to do more of that.”

And there’s no simple way for businesses to opt out of the bid, which now automatically incorporates any new storefront opened within its boundaries following its establishment in 2009. The only way to get rid of it is to dissolve it through a complicated legal process, according to a rep for the Small Business Services Department.

But if the bid’s leaders can keep their promises to amp up local stores’ security and promotion, the frustrated shopkeepers will likely be okay with returning to business as usual, according to another entrepreneur.

“We would like to see more marketing, more security,” said Rocky Widdi, who runs the Key Food grocery store at 991 Fulton St. “It just needs a little more improvement.”

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.
In action: The city installed new dedicated bus lanes along Fulton Street.
Photo by Jason Speakman