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Ready for Change on Beach 116

After years of complaints about conditions on Beach 116th Street, Councilwoman Joann Ariola is spearheading efforts to make changes, and by the turnout at a recent meeting with business owners on the block, they’re eager to see that change.

The backyard of Rogers was packed on Friday afternoon, but it wasn’t for happy hour. It was packed with Beach 116th business owners and neighbors from around the area who are quite unhappy with things they’ve seen happening on the block that they’ve invested in. On September 16, Councilwoman Ariola called for the meeting along with the business owners, neighbors, local police and the Queens Chamber of Commerce to hear concerns and discuss some actions that will be taking place to hopefully find solutions.

One of the main concerns is safety. Mike McMahon, owner of Rogers encouraged business owners to do what they can to make improvements by keeping the front of their stores clean and well maintained, but said, “The biggest problem we have on the block is safety. We’ll do what we have to do but just get rid of the drug dealers, the prostitution, the crime. Nobody will come here if it’s not safe,” he said.

Friday’s meeting was called after Councilwoman Ariola had recently formed a Beach 116th Task Force which had met a few weeks prior to discuss concerns with police.  “At that meeting, one of the major concerns was crime. Deputy Inspector Fabara of the 100th Precinct was there along with Community Affairs, and they worked out having extra patrols coming on weekends,” Ariola’s Chief of Staff Phyllis Inserillo said.

“We want to make sure everyone can close their business at night knowing that they’re not going to have anyone assault them or people coming in and out of their businesses, and for residents who live here to not be overburdened by what’s happening with people in local establishments that are putting their residents out on the street for the day and not tracking what’s happening. We don’t want businesses to close. We want everyone to come here and enjoy this block and not feel threatened,” Ariola said. “We’re taking bold steps, but we need complete participation by business owners, the Queens Chamber of Commerce and the residents in the area and we’re having separate meetings with people from the St. John’s Home, Gloria’s Manor and the Park Inn.”

Many of the attendees spoke of specific concerns and problem areas. Eric McManus, who bought the PJ Currans building, said that a neighbor in one of the beachfront condo buildings showed him photos of people dealing drugs at the Flight 587 Memorial. Laura Leonard, of ABA Tree, confirmed this, saying she’s seen it happen daily while walking to work, and has been fearful, being a witness to such activities.

Some pointed out that another big problem area has become the empty storefronts like the old Fashion Wave, which is owned by the MTA. Ariola herself said on her way to the meeting, she saw a man sitting in a flowerpot in front of the property. The area has been the source of many complaints as a place where people loiter, urinate and harass passersby, as the properties remain empty. Inserillo explained that Ariola’s office has been in touch with the MTA regarding this issue. “The rents they’re asking for are astronomical, which is why they’re empty, but we’re going to explain to them that they need to do something with this space,” Inserillo said. Some said they’ve made attempts to express interest in the space, like neighboring owner Rob Pisani of Bagel Barista Station, but he hasn’t heard back from anyone. After an eight-month battle, artist and activist Chris Jorge was able to “shame” the MTA into allowing her art group sketchRockaway! to place artwork in the windows of Fashion Wave to attempt to beautify the space while it remains empty, at a cost of $1K a year in insurance. Meanwhile, many said the MTA hasn’t been doing their part to keep the front of their properties clean or maintained.

Ariola explained they’re going to keep the pressure on. “The MTA is an authority. They answer to no one. But we’ve had great success under the El on Liberty Ave and Jamaica Ave, and we’re going to make sure we have the same success here. We’re going to go above whoever we have to with the MTA to make sure it gets cleaned,” she said.

Some attributed the loitering and threatening activity on the block to residents of nearby SROs. “We’re working with Park Inn and Gloria’s Manor and going to have meetings with them. We’re going to go at them from a city level and make sure they understand they have to be responsible. Once we address the bad actors here who own these places, if we can stop it, it will become better,” Ariola said, but added that there’s only so much she can do from the city level. She explained that she’s a supporter of mental health, support and rehabilitation services for people on the block that have these issues, but these people have to accept the help. “At the end of the day, they have to say yes and sometimes they do but that isn’t always the case. I’m a proponent of those services but until we change our state laws, we can’t force anyone to accept help,” she said. “We need to work with our state partners so they can change legislation so we can have a little more teeth when it comes to addressing issues like that.”

In the meantime, in addition to holding property owners like the MTA and the SRO owners accountable on a city level, Ariola suggested that there’s things the business owners can do to get some extra help. “The first idea is to put together a Business Improvement District or a Merchant Association so an elected official can help fund that association, business owners can pay into it, and it would ensure the block is getting regular cleanings on the street, regular plantings in our planters, holiday decorations, etc.,” she said. She invited Tom Grech, President and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce to explain how a BID or Merchant Association could be beneficial and the ways the Queens Chamber could boost them by helping businesses apply for grants that are available to them. “Tom Grech has done this in other communities, and we’ve seen tremendous turnaround on the blocks. They work on grants with you. It’s all the things we laypeople don’t know how to do. They’re here to assist and I funded them to make your life better on this street,” Ariola said.

Some expressed dismay over the Merchant Association idea, citing previous efforts like the Rockaway Business Alliance, which many said was not helpful. “Nobody here received anything from it. We tried it, it didn’t work,” one business owner chimed in. Ariola encouraged giving it another go. “It is the best approach to take because the Queens Chamber are experts at it. They will navigate us through to make sure we get exactly what we need and it’s going to be hands on. We’ll be in constant contact as far as our office goes,” she said.

The meeting ended with Ariola ensuring the business owners that she’ll be standing with them in this battle to bring back the block. “I think we’re taking very positive first steps. We want to make sure you stay in business. And I’m gonna be here, boots on the ground with you through the whole thing. You’re not going to go through it on your own,” she said, adding that she’ll put together another meeting for owners interested in forming a BID or Merchant Association.

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