Staten Island Alliance seeks business recovery

SI-Sandy

Almost two years after Superstorm Sandy devastated the region, the Staten Island Alliance is still helping small businesses recover.

And while it’s been two years since Sandy hit, Alliance officials believe the recovery process will take 5 to 10 years to get back any sense of normalcy — with infrastructure, general repairs, population levels and the number of households.

“A lot of times, these events are catalysts for change — disasters for some and opportunities for others. So what we’re looking to do is to help the ones who need to recover and assist the ones that are coming in to fill the spaces,” said Louis Prezeau, an Alliance board member.

In 2012, immediately following the storm, the Alliance formed as a grassroots organization comprised of homeowners, business owners and renters with the goal of supporting each other and sharing information.

“We felt that was the three areas that got hit, and we felt it would be the three areas that we would need to recover the community,” said Thomas Cunsolo, president of the Alliance, which, when it started, was known as the Midland Beach Alliance and focused on just that part of the Island. “It was so devastating that, a few days right after the storm hit, we got together a few of the business owners, homeowners and renters in the area. We felt if we were able to organize…we would be able to get answers and get through things better.”

Like all affected areas, the Alliance’s initial tasks were on-the-ground cleanup and recovery so people could get back on their feet. Quickly, though, officials knew they needed to do more, so they opened a storefront on Colony Avenue.

“Getting information (immediately following Sandy) was a little difficult,” Cunsolo said. “But once we opened the office, it became a lot easier…to have a place where people could literally come and do paperwork, have computer access and be able to have meetings and bring in all groups that we thought would be beneficial.”

And beneficial it was. The Alliance grew from serving a few hundred in need to 1,500 in a matter of a couple of months. The brick and mortar headquarters also attracted people from outside Midland Beach, and since the organization wanted to help all who needed it, it changed its name to better reflect who it served.

After the first few months, the Alliance was able to bring in disaster case managers from the Red Cross, Lutheran Social Services, Project Hospitality, the YMCA and Operation HOPE for information and counseling sessions.

“The office was all about inter-office organization and collaboration,” said Prezeau, who, in addition to being a board member of the Alliance, is the region manager of Operation HOPE. “The collaborations are unbelievable. The essence of the office is partnership, collaboration for the benefit of the residents and small business owners.”

The Alliance acts as a liaison of sorts between the city and small business owners. It was able to get storefront improvement grants for nine small businesses in the area, which Prezeau said is quite a feat considering only about 45 of the 72 storefronts are back in operation.

The organization also has an ongoing dialogue with the city’s Small Business Solutions and is planning to meet with its Neighborhood Development Division, which runs a storefront improvement program.

In fact, the SBS recently changed the parameters of what used to be a combination grant and loan program to small businesses, switching gears to a grant-focused program to make it easier for small business owners to obtain financial help and get back on their feet.

“The progress is slow, but that’s expected when you’re dealing with federal dollars, which then comes to the city,” Prezeau said. “For small business owners, it doesn’t matter. Bureaucracy is not a good excuse for small business owners.”

Cunsolo said his idea was to incorporate green energy into the grant in some way, even though it’s not an official part of any of the SBS programs. Still, he said the Alliance would seek out possibilities of getting solar generators that would provide temporary power when something such as Sandy occurs.

“When the lights went out, there were a lot of problems,” he said.

In addition to staying up-to-date with the SBS and other recovery programs and initiatives, the Alliance has done collaborations with architects and the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce to gain footing with organizations that could provide other relief funds.

Cunsolo believes the Alliance’s different approach to recovery is what has helped it have such a positive impact.

“We’re the only ones who attacked the small business aspect of the recovery. With other grassroots organizations, they were focusing on just the residential aspect of recovery. But you can’t bring the community back without bringing the businesses back,” he said. “The small businesses knew that they could come here and they would get the information they would need to recover. They lost a lot of their business through the homes that were lost. To try to keep the small businesses afloat through this process is hard.”

Despite the difficulty of doing so, Alliance officials believe they can make an even bigger difference in Staten Island as it continues to recover from Sandy two years later.

“To date, we’ve kind of been a jack-of-all-trades by incorporating that inter-agency collaboration, by really living by that credo of the four c’s — cooperation, collaboration, coordination and communication,” Prezeau said. “Going forward, we just want to continue to be that source of information and that source of technical assistance and that source of continued recovery.”