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Fight for Survival on Coney Island Boardwalk Mirrors Crisis Facing Shopkeepers Citywide

Save Coney’s Small Biz Soul! Advocates for small business owners rally on the steps of City Hall Thursday, December 5.

Reporter’s Notebook

New York, NY – Shopkeepers on the Coney Island Boardwalk find themselves embroiled in an existential crisis at year’s end that simultaneously echoes the fight for survival they successfully waged a decade ago, and epitomizes the plight other small business owners citywide continue to face.

In 2009, the City of New York paid Joe Sitt and Thor Equities $95.6 million of the people’s money for nearly seven acres of hotly contested Coney Island real estate. A year later, the city realized its aim of succeeding Carol Albert’s venerable Astroland Amusement Park with a next generation playground when it inked a deal with Italian ride manufacturer Zamperla — designating a further $6.65 million in capital funds to prepare the site along with two other parcels of land for the new tenant.

Stalwart Boardwalk shopkeepers — including the operators of Ruby’s Old Tyme Bar & Grill, Paul’s Daughter and Tom’s — meanwhile, were left scrambling to secure leases from their new landlord. 

Dianna Carlin, owner of the Lola Star Boardwalk Boutique, led a ferocious fight on behalf of herself and her threatened boardwalk neighbors to remain in Coney Island. They won. Last month, however, Carlin, aka Lola Star, learned that Zamperla is seeking to jack up the rent on her modest Boardwalk spot by an incredible 500-percent. 

Dianna Carlin, aka Lola Star, is still fighting for her place on the Coney Island Boardwalk.

The act mirrors the experience of small business owners throughout the city — 1,200 to 1,300 a month who are forced to close up shop for good. 

At an 11th hour rally for Boardwalk shopkeepers on the steps of City Hall last Thursday, December 5, Carlin said she never saw Zamperla’s astronomical rent hike coming. 

“I had faith in the redevelopment and the direction we were going,” she said. “I never thought my neighbor, Luna Park, would do this to us. We’ve been great tenants. I feel like that the boardwalk is amazing. It’s a great balance of old and new. I honestly didn’t see it coming. When our lease was up for renewal, I wasn’t really that concerned — even when they didn’t respond to my messages for four months.  I’m quite shocked. I thought they had better intentions for Coney Island.”

Norman Siegel, former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), and shopkeeper ally, chided “phony” progressives in New York City government for failing small business owners, saying, “The question is whether the mayor and the city council knew [Carlin] was going to get that [rent hike] — and if so, what they did or did not do — and why.” 

Coney Island’s amusement district lies within City Council Member Mark Treyger’s 47th Councilmanic District. In an email to LaborPress, Treyger bemoaned the more than half a billion dollars Coney Island residents spend outside the community every year, and said that he’s been in “near-daily contact” with the New York City Economic Development Corporation [NYCEDC] ever since “hearing concerns from businesses about the timing and terms of their rental offers.”

“This entire situation is symptomatic of a broader lack of attention from the City and EDC to ensure that, as hundreds of millions of public dollars are invested and vast swaths of city-owned land are redeveloped throughout the peninsula, that there is a clearly-articulated, cohesive, public vision for Coney Island–one that respects its singular place in American history, honors its vibrant diversity, and centers the needs of the folks who live here, who are all-too-often an afterthought,” Treyger said.

“Small Businesses Are The Heart & Soul of Coney Island” – and the rest of New York City.

A bill introduced in the City Council last year, called the Small Business Jobs Survival Act [SBJSA] has roots in other protective measure stretching all the way back to 1986, and seeks to give leaseholders greater recourse if they believe a rent increase is unjust.  But despite endless platitudes about shopkeepers being the backbone of the city’s economy, the SBJSA has continued to languish. 

None of the elected officials representing Coney Island or its environs were on hand for Thursday’s City Hall rally. When City Council Member Chaim Deutsch [D-48th District], happened by, he voiced strong support for small business owners on the Boardwalk, but also expressed concern for landlords. 

“There were a lot of bills that were passed against landlords which are making it very difficult for landlords to pay for even their own bills in some cases,” the council member said. “So, there is no one size fits all.” 

Regarding legislation already before the city council, Deutsch said, “We need to tweak those bills to make it work for landlords; to make it work for tenants. We passed bills — it doesn’t always work right.”

Zamperla issued a statement insisting that the company is working with tenants to “ensure their success and preserve the character of Coney Island,” while implying that things are actually hunky-dory. 

“We have one agreement that is fully executed and we are engaged in constructive conversations with 4 other tenants,” the statement said. “We have one tenant who refuses to meet with us, however, we welcome a productive dialogue to come to a solution.” 

The Mayor’s Office has not yet responded to requests for comment.

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