As he looked down Merrick Boulevard a couple of years ago, Ian Bowery could see trouble in the distance. As the owner of Bowery’s pharmacy, in Springfield Gardens, Queens, he knew that the opening of a new Pathmark supermarket and drug store a block away could spell the end of his decade-old business. If there was one consolation, though, it was a promise by Pathmark to help pay for façade renovations and sidewalk repairs from a specially created fund designed to prevent mom and pop stores from going out of business.
But two years after Pathmark cut the ribbon on its fifth Queens store, that fund has yet to appear. At least one former elected official said she’s partly to blame and has begun talking to her successors about fixing the situation. But for Bowery–who moved to another part of the neighborhood in April and is still seeing his sales drop–and for other small business owners, it could be too late.
When Pathmark first announced plans to open a supermarket in Springfield Gardens in the mid 1990s, this working and middle-class community was up in arms. Sure, they weren’t crazy about the few grocery stores they had in their neighborhood, which they said charged high prices for poor service. But many local residents worried that the 64,000-square-foot Pathmark and the mini mall it was bringing with it would put a lot of longtime neighboring shops out of business, and turn the local commercial strips into an abandoned eyesore.
So, to appease the community, then-City Councilmember Juanita Watkins proposed an unusual deal: In exchange for giving the mega-market the zoning changes it needed to build a store of its size, the Council would require that Pathmark put $400,000 over 20 years into a fund to help local stores offset potential revenue loss. Despite opposition from former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who likened the money-for-approval plan to blackmail, the Council overrode his veto and passed legislation setting up this fund in 1995. The store opened in March 2000.
To date, Pathmark has not put a penny into the fund and is $175,000 behind in payments, according to the schedule set up by the legislation. But City Comptroller Bill Thompson’s office says Pathmark is not entirely to blame. No city official has ever asked the comptroller to set up the fund, and the task force that the legislation established to administer the fund has never met.
“I don’t think the mechanism has been in place as it should have been,” admitted Watkins. “I didn’t put the pressure on that I should have.” She said she is talking to the current Council members about getting talks going with Pathmark again, though Councilmembers Leroy Comrie and James Sanders acknowledge they have yet to outline a clear strategy.
Pathmark would not comment on the fund, but, said company spokesperson Rich Savner, “We have been doing our piece with the community in terms of supporting nonprofits.”
But that doesn’t make Bowery and other small business owners feel any better. Vito Serra, manager of Mike’s Meat Market, located just a block from Pathmark, said his business has dropped 30 percent since the superstore opened. A nearby pharmacist sold his business to Duane Reade last year, but Bowery hopes he can hold on: “This was all political, and there was nothing the small guy could do anyway. You take your lumps and try to move on.”