Absentee Landlords Add Stress to Local Biz

No one is saying business is great. The Local Summit, an informal community council met this week to talk about local businesses.



             The program included a panel of four local business leaders and a vocal audience.

            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, Chairman of the Mamaroneck Ave. Task Force and Jenny Siegel, manager of Anderson’s Book Store. Heide Sickles was meeting chairman.


            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 skimping 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 as 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 St. executives are holding off on new construction and big renovations.” Murphy Brothers has had to do some reinvention. One step was to hire a professionl 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.


            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 potential new businesses can come in and set up shop with a minimum of red tape,  to increasing the numbers of weekend shoppers with free  horse-drawn carriage rides for kids. But he 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 people from some of the local art galleries and elsewhere 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 get to first base with absentee landlords or their out-of-town realty firms. He said they showed little local interest or understanding. “We called California, 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 Funeral Home, concurred: in Mamaroneck there also is absentee owner disregard for the local economy. But she said that although the Mamaroneck Chamber has undertaken a number of steps to help businesses in these tough times, she didn’t think it was the Chamber’s place to go so far as to ask landlords to modify arrangements or reduce rents.

            Carolyn Pomeranz, a board member of the Mamaroneck Library, speaking from the audience, said absentee owners “are not as invested in the community as are local real estate owners.” She said a Village book store on Mamaroneck Ave. went out of business precisely because of the landlord’s repeated hiking of rent.                     


            Community activist Mariana Boneo asked from the audience at separate times why local Chambers don’t insist on better retail diversification. “Do we need so many banks?” she 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 possibly this is 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.” She added that a piece of advice she likes to give to her small business clients is to learn to use the web to build sales.


            NYS Assemblyman George Latimore lofted a hypothetical question: would business improve if there were a reduction in local sales tax? Ms. Graziano said that since New Jersey and Connecticut  have a lower sales tax and are relatively close to Mamaroneck shoppers, reducing 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 said 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, a 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 holds a regular meeting at 7:45 a.m., the third Tuesday of the month at the Nautilus Diner in Mamaroneck.



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