On a warm, sunlit evening last week, a seemingly endless line of cars flowed through the stretch of downtown businesses between East Merrick Road and Sunrise Highway known as Rockaway Avenue.
Despite the ideal walking weather, however, the same could scarcely be said of its downtown sidewalks, where only a scattering of pedestrians could be seen moving out and about.
A cursory look down Rockaway showed an uneven flow of foot traffic from one shop to the next. Some businesses handled a modest crowd of clientele. Others welcomed the occasional shopper drifting in. Still, many others remained open, yet eerily empty for a brisk afternoon.
When the coronavirus upended how people gather, work and play at this multicultural hodgepodge of mom-and-pop delis, beauty parlors, restaurants and barbershops three years ago and put Rockaway businesses in flux, village officials and local business leaders took great lengths to keep its commercial and community relevance and appeal alive.
Now, Rockaway is pulsing slowly back to life. Its vacated storefronts are starting to fill. New, or soon-to-arrive, businesses are sprouting. And the downtown economy is on a steady post-pandemic recovery.
But some owners — and the neighbors who shop there — still say the business district continues its struggle recapturing its former vibrancy and buzz of activity.
And that’s where Mayor Ed Fare and his economic development team step in.
Their latest investment comes in the form of a new storefront rehabilitation program, intended to cover 80 percent of the cost to redo front signage, lights and awnings of a business’s storefront on Rockaway. The program is made available through grant money secured through the Nassau County Office of Community Development.
“This is not just about aesthetics,” Elissa Kyle said. “This sign and facade program will create an inviting environment with a strong sense of place where shoppers want to come and linger.”
Kyle is the placemaking director of the sustainable downtown development organization, Vision Long Island.
“And the more time people spend in a place,” she added, “the more money they tend to spend.”
The rehabilitation program is exactly the push Rockaway needs, said Sasan Shavanson, president of the Valley Stream Chamber of Commerce.
“Valley Stream businesses have been resilient, but additional help to give a fresh look to their facades can help attract new customers and keep existing shoppers patronizing our brick-and-mortar stores,” he said.
David Sabatino, part of the village’s economic development team, said Valley Stream officials went door-to-door, informing businesses of the new program unveiled last month.
“If someone came to you and said you can redo your house and we’ll pay for 80 percent and you only have to do 20, I’d think you jump at it,” said Mayor Fare. “We think we’ll get a lot of buy-in and participation for the program to revitalize our downtown.”
Josephine Zambrano, the owner of Italian bakery Il Corso Pastry Shop, likes the program as a money-saving investment, but still had unanswered concerns regarding specifics.
“It sounds great for businesses to get new signage,” she said. “We still had questions about whether we would pick the company to redo the signs or the village. We inquired about it, and (the village personnel) who told us about the program said they’d get back to us.”
Still, business at Il Corso is “doing OK,” Zambrano said, because of its loyal customer base and its long-held reputation for high-quality classic Italian baked goods. Attracting clientele to the store has not been an issue, but there are other immediate financial challenges stretching her budget — namely coping with inflation, and a rise in basic overhead costs.
“When the price of eggs goes from $20 a case to $130 a case, that’s a very big deal for bakeries, bagel shop owners,” Zambrano said. “It’s pretty expensive to rent here, and prices just keep going up. And the biggest challenge is not to put these price jumps on the consumer. We’re trying to be fair with our prices while looking at our profit margins.”
Others, like Diana Carillo — owner of the Chicken Coop, a Colombian restaurant with 13 years on Rockaway — say business is good. But as far as the new revitalization program, Carillo confessed she was unaware of it.
“It sounds like a good offer, and I’m interested in applying for the program,” she said. “But no one has reached out to me about it.”
Reina Buckhout is in the dark about the program, too.
“Yeah, the (storefront upgrade) would be nice,” the owner of DePalma Florist said. “I would go for it, but I haven’t been contacted about it by the village, so I wouldn’t know how to apply.”
It could really make a difference, too — even for a business that has been part of the Rockaway Avenue scene for 80 years.
“Foot traffic has gone down quite a bit,” Buckhout said. “Nowadays, you don’t see too many walk-in customers anymore. Most of our business orders are done over the phone and the internet.
“While I have no complaints about the business, hopefully the new signs can get more customers through the door.”
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