Currans Superior Meats
Currans Superior Meats (Photo by Ann Marie Awad)

Before they knew it, Tom Murphy and George England had their business swept out from under them by Superstorm Sandy.

Murphy and England owned Curran’s Superior Meats, practically a Rockaway institution, on Beach 129th Street. Flood and smoke damage prompted their landlord to sell the building, leaving Murphy and England out of work for nearly eight months.

But when they took over a new storefront in March in the battered business corridor of Beach 116th street, they got lucky. A representative of the city’s Small Business Services (SBS) office stopped by and urged them to apply for the Small Business Storefront Improvement Pilot Program.

The result is a fresh coat of paint, crisp new awnings and polished new signs. They were able to re-open on June 8.

“We didn’t even have a sign [yet]. We had no sign and our customers still came in,” Murphy said. “They came in with flowers, they came in with balloons. People were hugging, people were crying. It was a real emotional day.”

Now the city is trying to replicate the success of the program along Beach 116th, making it available to nearly any impacted business that falls within an evacuation zone. Since the expansion began in August, the city has received more than 80 applications.

“The program will assist businesses as long as there are funds available,” said Meredith Weber, spokeswoman for SBS. “So far we have received more applications than funding will cover and some businesses will be turned down.”

The SBS has added language to their website informing applicants that they’ve reached enrollment capacity, however they are still accepting applications in the event that more funding is made available.
The cash comes from The Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, with $1,250,000 set aside to fund the citywide program.

The pilot was initially funded by a $250,000 grant from Citi Community Development, matched by The Mayor’s Fund, which amounted in $500,000 of improvements being made along the Beach 116th corridor. Additionally, other city departments pitched in to make improvements to the area overall, providing new benches, shrubbery and streetlights.

Eligible businesses are awarded up to $20,000 to make facade improvements, such as replacing windows or putting up new signage.

Curran’s was swiftly approved for the full $20,000, and they weren’t the only ones. Neighboring businesses have similarly fresh looking storefronts to match.

So far the only businesses to complete the application process and conduct repairs have been those involved in the pilot program. Weber said that all new applicants are still in the early stages of the application process, which require site visits and contractor estimates before grants can be awarded.

The complex application process could also be a part of the problem; businesses are asked to apply as groups of at least five nearby businesses. However, if you don’t know your neighbors, the city will group you accordingly. Drawings and photos are encouraged so SBS can assess need. Cash is doled out on a first come, first serve basis, but business owners in areas where little outreach has been done may not have known about the program soon enough to complete the application before the quickly approaching November 1 deadline.

Such may be the case at the other end of the Rockaway peninsula.

“I don’t want to take anything from the west end of the Rockaways and I don’t want to make it an east-west war,” said Councilman Donovan Richards Jr., whose district encompasses the east end.

Richards also worries that too many business owners suffer from paperwork fatigue from applying to all manner of disaster relief programs. He also pointed out that Beach 116th businesses were guaranteed money as a part of the pilot, while businesses on the east end are put into competition with business owners throughout the city for remaining funds.

Another concern is the time – as the one-year anniversary of the storm nears, Richards believes the program is too little too late for some business owners who have already shelled out the money for repairs. The program will not reimburse those business owners.

“There are some who just said ‘the hell with all of this government red tape’ and just got it done,” he said. “But for those who are still struggling, their stores are still struggling.”