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Small Businesses in Lower Manhattan Still Struggling - 2002-07-23

The clean-up effort at the site of New York's World Trade Center is over, but for many small businesses devastated by the September 11 terrorist attacks - hopes for a better future have been shattered.

The Tribeca Organization, a group formed after September 11 try to help restore the economic and cultural vitality of lower Manhattan, has been trying to assist small businesses hurt by the September attack.

But according to assistant director Sharon Decker, the region is still in serious trouble. "Business is down between 30 and 70 percent," she said. "The worst hurt are the smaller businesses, with between one and five employees. Or even no employees. The entrepreneurs who are really hurting are having trouble navigating the grant system, or simply don't have the manpower to navigate the bureaucracy. They don't have the time because they're trying to keep their businesses open."

But as businesses struggle with the complicated paperwork of collecting insurance and receiving government funding, there are greater forces at work against them. Christy Ferer, who lost her husband in the attacks and is currently serving as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's liaison to victim's families, believes that skepticism about the future of Lower Manhattan as a whole is a major hindrance to small business recovery.

"The big obstacle is trying to get people to believe that things will be happening down there, and that Manhattan will come back at that tip," she said. "That businesses will go back down there, and residents will stay."

Renjit Varghese and his business partners signed their lease on September 1, 2001, for a location a few blocks from the former World Trade Center. They planned to have their state of the art fitness club up and running by now. In trying to resurrect his plans, Mr. Varghese has witnessed first-hand how deeply this business community is wounded.

"It's not really talked about as much, but the small businesses downtown are struggling," he said. "And not just in the sense of retail traffic, but in the sense of emotions. If you go to a small business meeting, people regularly break down in tears because of the tragedy they've gone through."

The emotionally-charged meetings that Renjit Varghese attends are often hosted by Bernadette Nations of the New York City Business Assistance Program. She deals with hundreds of small business owners every day, and has a keen understanding of the difficulties that plague them. She says she has cried with many of them, but she thinks the worst is over.

"I see that it will resurge," she said. "Particularly when they start rebuilding. Because, in the clean-up, you only had a certain group of people performing the work. When it comes time to rebuild, you're going to have the architects, the welders, the electricians, it's going to bring a lot of people to this area. And it's also going to bring a lot of tourists."

Renewal is not, however, around the corner for every small business. Duane Anzalone owned St. Charlie's Restaurant just two blocks south of the World Trade Center. His wife was a waitress there. He started cleaning tables there 25 years ago, and worked his way up. St. Charlie's closed on September 11 and will never open again.

"Nobody ever experienced a situation where your location is taken away from you," he said. "Without my location, without the World Trade Center, I have no business. My business was the WTC, and that was removed."

Mr. Anzalone says government bureaucracy, landlord problems, and funding difficulties have stalled his decisions about what to do next. All he knows for sure is that his family's only source of income is gone.