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Mon, Oct 3, 2011 The Journal News  |  Updated: 4:39 PM
Resident business owners work to rebuild communities
Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy
October 3, 2011

“Hometown business owner Ginael Alexander, left, the owner of Nellie’s Café in Peekskill, gets a delivery of sweet potato pies from Kecia Palmer-Cousins of G&K Sweet Foods at Alexander’s shop on Main Street. – Mark Vergari/The Journal News

Adam Strahl, an ex-indie rocker who spent time touring, and his wife, Danielle Zinaich, a model who walks the Paris runway, had a very clear vision of the space they wanted to create.
“We wanted a rock ‘n’ roll place, with a clean, Zen atmosphere,” said Strahl, the owner of Local, a new ice cream parlor and cafe in Chappaqua that features organic ice cream as well as salads and sandwiches made from locally sourced produce.

The take-out containers are eco-friendly and cafe tables have been manufactured out of salvaged woods.
“It’s a personal thing. I feel like I am offering my whole ideology to the community,” Strahl said.
The couple, who moved to the hamlet 10 years ago after the birth of their first child, are among a growing number of residents — eight in Chappaqua alone — to hang out a shingle or expand their existing business footprint in their hometowns over the last year.

In the throes of recession, business owners from Peekskill to Bronxville to New City, are doubling down in their communities, suggesting a regional trend toward hyperlocal business.

Susan Witt, a founder and the education director of the New Economics Institute, a think tank that champions the concept of building local economies, is not surprised.

Founded in 1980, the non-profit institute located in New York City and the Berkshires, was once thought of as “sweet and idealistic but backward,” Witt said. Since the economic downturn of 2008, their ideas, based on the thinking of British economist E.F. Schumacher, have caught fire. Schumacher’s 1973 book, “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered” is being re-issued by Random House.

“Back then, it was all about globalization, and our ideas were not popular,” said Witt. “Now, a lack of confidence in the strength of global companies is resulting in citizen-led initiatives. They are not waiting for the federal government to solve their problems.”

Americans, she said, “have always been good about finding solutions to their problems.”

The problem for Christie Ray Robb, the former owner of a design firm specializing in renovations to high-end New York City apartments, was that walking around her new hometown, she didn’t see anything that fit her vision of what she wanted to do.

Robb and her husband moved to Bronxville in 2008 to raise their family and she was attracted to its picturesque, snow globe-of-a-village quality, she said.

A shuttered store front, in the heart of downtown directly opposite the train station, finally spoke to her.

“It had been empty for 18 months, and I knew that if I ever started something, it had to be there,” Robb said.

She launched Urban Cottage Design, a furniture and gift store, last December. The timing worked in her favor.

“In terms of being able to rent an amazing space at a less-than-premium price, it’s been great,” she said.

In New City, close to 10 businesses were started by residents in the last year, said Steve Weissblatt, president of the New City Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s been a combination of factors. The streetscape improvements have helped, and people are taking advantage of the vacant properties,” said Weissblatt, owner of Original Designs, who opened up the store in his hometown 28 years ago. “And residents can identify a need in their own community.”

Frank Lyons and his partner, Roberta Adao, both New City residents, started Sign Creations Inc. in 2008, just as the economy sank.

But the nature of their business — they do everything from banners to illuminated signs to dimensional letters — proved to be recession-proof.

“People are always going in and out of business, and they need signs,” said Lyons, a former New York City police officer.

Last month, they moved from Congers Street to a larger space on Main Street.

“It’s centrally located and we are little more on the map,” said Adao, a former psychotherapist. “It’s been great working here. We’ve gotten to know so many of our neighbors .”

A study conducted by Civic Economics, an economic development consultancy, found that spending $100 at an independent, neighborhood business creates $68 in additional local economic activity, while spending $100 at a chain produces only $43 worth of local impact.

When Ginael Alexander of Peekskill lost her job in sales administration, she decided to explore a need she knew her community had.

“I absolutely love Peekskill and the sense of community here. But one thing it didn’t have was a place for the local teens to hang out,” said Alexander, the mother of two boys.

She opened up Nellie’s Cafe, a dessert cafe with karaoke machines on Main Street, last November.

“It’s geared towards teenagers. It’s a place for them to relax,” said Alexander, who partnered up with another Peekskill entrepreneur , Kecia Palmer-Cousins, to sell pies by G&K Sweet Foods, LLC.

Palmer-Cousins, the daughter-in-law of state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, and her business partner, Gay Wheeler-Smith, supply their Grandma’s Momma’s Legacy ‘Licious Sweet Potato Pies to Nellie’s Cafe every week.

None of this would have been possible, Alexander said, if not for the assistance of the New York State Small Business Development Center.

“They helped me write my business plan and also helped me get a loan,” she said.

Louis Scamardella, an assistant director at the White Plains office of the NYS Small Business Development Center, said local residents were “filling a need in the neighborhood at a very personal level.”

Chappaqua resident Dawn Greenberg, who debuted Aurora — a store that sells Fair Trade merchandise — this past Mother’s Day, said a group of mothers from her children’s school volunteered on opening day, wrapping and ringing up items.

“I feel like I have been embraced by the community,” said Greenberg, a former marketing professional for DC comics.

Adjacent to Aurora on lower King Street is Breeze, a tabletop gift store that opened in September.

Store ower Susan Maher, who moved to Chappaqua 10 years ago, said she wanted to be part of the town’s comeback.

“We have had so many empty stores — it’s always been a frustration of mine,” said Maher, who previously worked in store management at Crate & Barrel. “And this is the only way I can help. My mother thinks I am crazy, my husband is nervous but cautiously optimistic, and I feel like I am doing something to revitalize my community.”

New Castle Supervisor Barbara Gerrard ventured that the sudden boom in Chappaqua could be the result of infrastructure improvements including the near-future completion of the Route 120 bridge as well as landscaping improvements downtown.

And customers are taking notice.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, every table at Local was filled.

“It feels like Chappaqua is alive again, and that it can be a destination place,” said Shoshana Mitrani-Knapp, a 26-year resident of Chappaqua, who said another merchant down the street had pointed her to Local. “There’s a new pride in our local stores and a sense of civic loyalty and a feeling of community.”

Witt, of the New Economics Institute, said locally owned businesses create a “back-and-forth accountability between local residents and business owners.”

“You have multiple relationships that build trust — your PTA president might be your printer,” said Witt. “They are going to do right by you and you are going to do right by them.”

As Bronxville resident and business owner Robb sees it, it’s a symbiotic relationship.

“It’s about self-preservation. Empty stores mean lower property values for the residents,” she said. “If people don’t buy, the whole town goes dark, and the charming, snow globe village is gone.”