Flatiron District businesses brace for second wave of COVID-19

Written by Neil A. Carousso

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- The Flatiron District - world-famous for being a vibrant technology hub, higher education center and home to restaurants, retail and tourism - is now bracing for a surge in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations that could lead to industry shutdowns as a measure to help quell the spread.

James Mettham, executive director of the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership, told Joe Connolly and Neil A. Carousso on the WCBS Small Business Spotlight, sponsored by BNB Bank, that a second shutdown without "true relief" in the form of forgivable federal government loans or grants, which would need to passed by Congress, would stifle business recovery.

"It's really a call for emergency action as we hit the ledge here," Mettham said.

The Business Improvement District says 75 percent of ground-floor food, retail and services businesses have reopened or never shutdown, deemed essential, in the spring. They had to pivot in March to survive.

Small businesses that already had an e-commerce platform are best positioned to stay afloat; others are catching up and struggling to compete with Amazon, Wal-Mart and other large companies that have seen sales accelerate in the pandemic. Amazon's sales are up 53 percent while Wal-Mart, with a growing e-commerce site, has seen sales rise 45 percent.

Mettham told WCBS 880 some food businesses in the Flatiron District have had success through so-called "re-targeting."

"It's been really trying to push their goods towards local residents - folks that they can rely on being in the neighborhood and familiar with their business," he explained.

Loyalty initiatives have also helped stores attract customers who want to support their local businesses.

Many, though, say commercial rent prices must come down for businesses to survive and new businesses to thrive.

"Landlords and tenants both understand that a vibrant neighborhood that's occupied with a mix of uses ranging with office workers, hospitality, visitors (and) students is all in the best interest of everyone," Mettham said.

He told Connolly and Carousso several new restaurants have taken advantage of reduced entry costs and opened their doors in the Flatiron District. The BID veteran believes the two sides will negotiate and come to an agreement because the local economy depends on it; the pandemic has underscored how one industry impacts the other in a connected economy like New York.

Before joining the Flatiron District/23rd Street Partnership, Mettham served as managing director of finance and operations at the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. He was also assistant commissioner of the New York City Department of Small Business Services (SBS) Neighborhood Development Division and executive director of SBS' Business Improvement District Program.

On the WCBS Small Business Spotlight, Mettham talks about the Flatiron District with reverence of its history and promise for a post-pandemic city. He sees new technology companies entering the previously bustling neighborhood, which he believes is reminiscent of the tech boom in the 1990s in Manhattan South, which earned it the moniker "Silicon Alley.”

"It's been very both resilient and flexible and innovative in its character over the years," Mettham said, continuing, "Whether it's been from the photography industry, the table top industry, original Silicon Alley 20 years ago, it's always been able to build on its successes, reinvent itself and I don't think this is going to require a full reinvention."

Hear more about the new businesses opening in the Flatiron District and how existing ones are bracing for the second wave of the pandemic on the WCBS Small Business Spotlight Podcast on the RADIO.COM app or on the media player above.