Critical Time For Downtown Businesses

This is rush hour at Bits, Bites and Baguettes on Park Place, between Church Street and Broadway. Owner Robert Garber called the turnout pathetic.

"Our catering business is probably down 60 percent...Our foot traffic business is down 50-60 percent due to Church street still being sealed off."

It started off as a banner year for the deli and catering company with sales up about 30 percent from last year. Not so anymore.

"Right now we just can't get it going. We'll have one good day and then we'll have three miserable days. We just can't get a flow going here and that's what's holding us back right now."

And from all accounts, Garber is one of the lucky ones. He has taken advantage of every offer of help that has come his way, including a chance to feed some of the construction workers at the World Trade Center site. People from the Salvation Army came by recently passing out pamphlets about this program.

"I immediately filled out the forms and I fedexed it yesterday because I definitely want to get on that list. So that could be a good short-term fix. It's not catering, it's not glamorous, but it's money and it's volume and at this point we just need the volume and we'll really take anything we can get."

Business consultant working with small companies downtown say it's critical that owners like Garber start planning for the future. Short-term, things look grim with a recession and perilous drops in tourism and foot traffic downtown. But longer-term there is hope.
William Grinker runs Seedco, one of the groups giving loans and grants directly to small business owners. He's telling people to sit tight for a year, if they can.

"Hang in there and, you know, it's going to come back and I believe it will...(4:00)And that will partly come I hope from a resumption of tourism in the area, a major construction initiative and a return by the major banking and investment companies."

Professor Richard Miller agrees. He's overseeing a pro-bono project at the Stern School of Business at NYU called "Stern Rebuilds." Business students and professors are counseling owners, trying to arm them with revised business plans within 30 to 60 days that will get them over the hump of the mid-term, a length of time that Miller said can run from 6 months to three years.

"It's really a process of re-thinking the business. Most owners don't, because of the press of the day to day, step back and rethink the business and by bringing in these fresh viewpoints ...those other opportunities will or should hopefully emerge."

Bits and Bites signed up for the Stern program, hoping for some marketing advice. But for now, owner Robert Garber says he's taking a defensive position. He's not using the six salespeople he hired last year and he's not aggressively seeking new business.

"From what I can see right now from speaking to people no one is really in the frame of mind to be thinking about spending more money on catering or switching companies or doing anything to change their daily routines which would involve taking ona new caterer. So instead of going forward planning on how to increase our volume and how to get more and more and more, right now I am just going to sit back and try and retain what we have."

He says that approach should carry him to mid-January. If things aren't looking brighter by then, he'll have to start laying people off, something he's refused to do so far.

From the Marketplace/WNYC businessdesk, I'm Patricia Willens.