Friday, May 8, 2009

Flushing Retail Thriving

NEW YORK, NY April 23, 2009 —The economic downturn which largely started on Wall street has been felt globally - and its ripples have touched shopping districts all over the world. But there seems to be one retail hub that is thriving and it's not in a far-flung corner of the planet. As part of our own Main Street series, WNYC's Richard Yeh took the 7 train out to New York's most visible Main Street... in Flushing, Queens.

Pictures, audio portraits and more in our Main Street series

REPORTER: On a recent afternoon, Fred Fu is having a coffee break at the Tai Pan Bakery on Main Street. Like many residents in Flushing, Fu moved from Taiwan as a college student in 1980, and he’s lived here since. For the last 15 years he’s run a small travel agency in downtown Flushing. He says the economic crisis that’s hitting main streets elsewhere is less acute here.

FU: Every economy is inside Flushing. For example, myself, I live in Flushing downtown. My business is in Flushing, I eat in Chinese restaurants in Flushing, Everything’s in Flushing.

REPORTER: The self-sustaining nature of its economy doesn’t make Flushing totally recession-proof, but the continued influx of new immigrants does make its small businesses more resistant to a downturn.

Peter Koo owns a small but successful chain of pharmacies called Starside Drugs. He says he saw a five to ten percent drop last year in general sales, in things like shampoos and over-the-counter medicine. But in a couple of his stores, prescription sales went up.

KOO: We can offer Chinese interpretation on doctors’ directions. We can explain to them and they’d understand. And we also do things other than filling prescriptions. If they have a bill they don’t understand, we’ll explain, “oh this is a Con Edison bill.”

REPORTER: Koo says a common language and kinship are the reason he’s been able to build a loyal customer base, even with the chain store Duane Reade just two blocks away.

KOO: They have sale prices every day, customers come in and show me their flyers. So I told my staff, I said, “Hey, a chain store moved in, how can we survive? We cannot compete with price, so we have to compete with service. If service is good, people don’t mind to pay a nickel or 10 cents more.

REPORTER: Koo’s business philosophy is what’s guided immigrant entrepreneurs here thru the last three decades. According to Census data, the number of Asian immigrants making Flushing their home has almost doubled from 1990 to 2000, with Chinese and Koreans leading that trend. After the attacks of September 11th, which devastated the local economy in Manhattan’s Chinatown, more Chinese immigrants are settling in Flushing than ever. So far this decade, at least half a dozen large Chinese supermarkets have opened in the downtown area, with each doing anywhere from one-and-a-half to three million dollars in sales every month.

Roger Lo is president of AOL Realty. He says as long as the immigrants keep coming in, the real estate market will be solid.

LO: In Flushing, especially downtown Flushing - Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue - the demand to buy commercial property or to lease a commercial store is still very very strong.

REPORTER: Lo says many immigrant families are attracted to the area by good school districts in nearby neighborhoods, like Bayside and Fresh Meadows. But the main draw for the first-generation immigrants is still the sheer amount of commerce. That’s why, Lo says the retail vacancy rate for downtown Flushing is never over five percent.

But Flushing’s Main Street hasn’t always been the flush neighborhood it is today. Wellington Chen is an urban planner and a longtime community activist. He remembers the down-and-out Flushing during New York’s economic crisis of the 1970s.

CHEN: There was a negative vacuum, lot of people left thinking in a panic that they had to get out of town. It was the town looking at it as half-empty that caused the new arrivals to come in and look at it as half-full.

REPORTER: Among the new arrival of the late 70s is Joseph Vee, who came from Hong Kong and opened an auto repair shop just steps from Main Street, in the shadow of the LIRR platform.

VEE: You want to fix your car, go there and look for that guy. Mostly they come in they always say, hey, go into the shop, look for the guy with a little mustache, that’s they guy, sure, you’re not gonna miss it.

REPORTER: Vee has seen the city’s economy go up and down. But for him business has been one steady climb, even through the current recession. Many of his customers are now keeping their cars longer, and his business is actually up a bit compared to a year ago. Vee says he’s able to have a steady stream of business because of the close-knit nature of the immigrant community, and the convenience of a sprawling mass transit network.

VEE: First, word of mouth, second, convenience, third, the public transportation is good for the customers. When they leave their car, they can get any kind of public location and come back to pick up the car.

REPORTER: It’s true - 24 bus lines, a Long Island Railroad station, and the 7 train terminal which is the busiest station outside of Manhattan – all make up the transit hub that serves nearly 100,000 people a day, according to the Flushing Business Improvement District. The massive foot traffic is attracting the attention of international retailers, like the Korean bakery chain, Paris Baguette.

SOU: Our brand is very familiar among all the Korean community, so they can feel the home, every time they go to Paris Baguette, very familiar for them.

REPORTER: Jessie Sou is the marketing director at Paris Baguette USA, which has 11 outlets.

SOU: That’s why we go to Korean market first, but that’s not our primary goal, our primary goal is to go mainstream in the U.S.

REPORTER: Sou says her company chose Flushing’s Main Street for its first store in New York City over the Korean enclave near Herald part because it needs a large location so that it can bake on-site. Plus, the company already knows the local clientele, from its experience in Asia.

SOU: This location is perfect for us because we know the Chinese population loves our product, we’ve already succeeded in China, and this area, Korean culture and Chinese culture blend well together here, so our store can be bridge to two different cultures.

Located in a brand new high rise building, complete with Times Square-style jumbotrons on its façade, Paris Baguette is just one example of new businesses trying to cash in on a neighborhood that’s bursting at the seams. A new traffic plan is being designed to address the chronic congestion. And the future build-out of nearby Willets Point, plus a large-scale project slated to replace the area’s main parking lot, are both in development. In short, New York City’s most visible Main Street is not slowing down. For WNYC, I’m Richard Yeh.

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