The Brighton Beach Business Improvement District hosted an unprecedented visit by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and top brass from nearly two dozen city agencies on Thursday, marking a stride forward in the relationship between the government and New York City’s Russian-American business owners.
Approximately 200 business owners, activists and local politicians packed into National Restaurant (273 Brighton Beach Avenue) during the evening powwow, as Mayor Bloomberg addressed the gathering and – along with commissioners from city agencies including the NYPD, Small Business Services, Department of Education and Department of Traffic – answered a broad range of questions and concerns.
“Small business owners have to jump from one hoop to another to get everything they need from city agencies,” said Brighton Beach BID’s executive director, Yelena Makhnin, who organized the event. “I believe this visit is part of the initiative to reach out to Russian-speaking business owners.”
It’s unclear what sparked the new outreach, which was initiated by the mayor’s office. It’s likely due to the emergence of Russian-American businesses as a fierce economic engine for New York City. The meeting came just days after New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli issued a report identifying Brighton Beach and Coney Island as one of the strongest sectors of economic growth in the state, driven by its small business community. According to the report, it has seen a boom in the number of small businesses, employment and tourism, far exceeding the rate of growth elsewhere in the city.
Though the mayor didn’t mention the report, he did reflect on its message.
“This community is doing well, growing, open, welcoming – and this is the reason why [New York City] went into the last recession much later than everyone else and came out earlier than everyone else,” Bloomberg told the crowd. “I have a theory as to why: immigrants … It’s immigrants that enhance our culture and cuisine and language and religion. It’s also immigrants that create jobs.”
Those small businesses, though, face recession- and regulatory-related challenges that the city can help ease, Makhnin said.
“It is well known that the Russian-speaking community, its business owners and professionals, play an important role in New York City’s economic growth,” Makhnin said. “Russian-speaking business owners, as well as other ethnic groups, need help from the city. With escalating prices and economical challenges it is important to build a better relationship between city agencies and business owners.”
But if city officials were hoping to hear how they could do a better job serving small businesses, or to learn from Brighton Beach’s growth, it was largely a missed opportunity. The questions during the hour-long event were primarily softball concerns about basic government functions. Potholes and road repairs, along with garbage and security concerns, took up most of the time, while broader concerns – often privately uttered by entrepreneurs claiming the city is creating an anti-small business environment – went unchallenged.
That’s the sentiment echoed by several local leaders, including the event’s organizer, Makhnin.
“I’m very disappointed with the questions that came up,” Makhnin said. “There are many, many problems that people face in terms of their businesses and professions – like taxes and regulations – and I expected people to ask those kind of questions.”
Still the historic event was a major coup for the Brighton Beach BID, garnering accolades from other local leaders.
“It’s a real testiment to Yelena and the BID to have gathered the mayor and all these agencies,” said Community Board 15 Chairperson Theresa Scavo. “I thought it was spectacular. I was stunned to see how many people” from the neighborhood and city agencies attended.
Attendees were also invited to speak personally with the various agency heads after the meeting, when the brass stayed around for at least another 30 minutes handling concerns personally. Makhnin said many of the business owners took advantage of this, noting that many of them received follow-ups to their requests and concerns the very next day.
For Makhnin, though, the greatest benefit of the event is that it is helping the organization build further inroads with the most important decision-makers in city government.
“It was the first time in the history of the Russian-speaking community that the mayor brings the commissioners” from across the city to hear out concerns, Makhnin said. “It’s good for our organization. I believe it’s going to make my life as executive director of the BID much easier because it’s important to put faces and names together. Now they know who I am,” and they’ve shown trust in the organization.
Watch the hour-long video of the event: