Editorial: Downtown business districts: a better experience

The Island Now

Don’t shop in downtown business districts this holiday season because of who the businesses hire. Even though they hire local people who may be your friends and neighbors.

Don’t shop in downtown business districts because the money spent at small businesses is spent by owners and employees close to where they live and work. Even though the money spent by owners and employers supports other businesses, keeping local districts vibrant.

And don’t shop in downtown business districts because of the owners’ contribution to the community. Even though it is the owners and employees of local businesses that are the No. 1 supporters of neighborhood teams, charities and organizations.

Instead, shop in downtown business districts because you will find unique items for sale, offered by people knowledgeable about the products they sell, in a “Main Street”  atmosphere that major retailers like Macy’s are now trying to replicate.

The store owners also have a strong motivation to do right by you – their reputation in the community.

In other words, shop downtown business districts because of the experience they offer.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t brave the traffic to shop at a mall or shop online. They often offer good products at good prices and, if purchased online, the convenience of never having to leave your home.

But too often downtown districts, which form the heart of communities across the North Shore, are underappreciated by shoppers and overlooked by government.

New York City and New York State came up with $3 billion in tax incentives to lure Amazon to Long Island City with an office headquarters – only to have Amazon turn the offer down.

How much has the state or county or towns or villages come up for the owners of “Main Street” businesses who compete with Amazon? Little or nothing, even though small businesses provide half the jobs in the country.

In fact, local governments often rely on the revenue from shoppers of downtown businesses generated from parking meters and tickets. Giving a shopper a ticket is not exactly helpful in creating a desirable shopping experience.

This is a problem people who shop online, in malls, or in strip centers do not face.

To their credit, several local governments have made parking free from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

Which raises a question. If free parking is a good idea in downtown shopping districts during the holiday season when shoppers are the most motivated, why isn’t free parking a good idea the rest of the year?

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and the Nassau County Industrial Development Agency recently joined the Nassau Council of Chambers of Commerce to launch a countywide Shop Small Scavenger Hunt to encourage residents to shop and dine at local small businesses throughout the holiday shopping season.

The Town of North Hempstead also announced plans to partner with local chambers of commerce to distribute shop local signs.

We applaud both efforts to promote business in our downtowns. They are steps in the direction. But that still leaves government with a long way to go in the help they can provide.

And apparently some in government are beginning to get that message.

Richard Kessel, chairman of the Nassau IDA, recently said the agency will lobby state leaders to expand the tax-break-granting powers of IDAs to include downtown retailers, among others.

Currently, state law prohibits IDAs from awarding tax breaks to retailers in most instances and to many types of housing. The agencies generally help large manufacturers, technology companies and service firms with sales-tax exemptions on the purchase of construction materials and new equipment, reductions in the mortgage recording tax and savings on property-tax bills over 10, 15, 20 and, in a few cases, 40 years.

But Kessel said in a story that appeared in Newsday it was time to take another look at their mission.

“The economic world has changed” since IDAs were established 50 years ago, he said. “It’s very frustrating to me that we cannot help retailers in a downtown that’s struggling. The IDA statute has to be looked at in terms of what can be done to help give the IDAs broader powers.”

Nassau County legislators could also do more. They are actually given funds to assist downtown business districts. But Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello said that legislators have in recent years often use the funds for other purposes.

It’s time that the legislators be held accountable and the money be spent on its intended purpose such as improving parking in downtown districts and funding attractive amenities.

In the meantime, we hope residents will take advantage of the businesses in downtown districts, if for no reason other than they offer a better shopping experience.

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