- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Store owners around Madison Square Garden say business has dropped significantly since the beginning of the Republican National Convention, despite promises that the requisite security measures wouldn’t drive customers away.

“Where are the Republicans, the big spenders?” asks Omar Skaff, owner of Hilton Electronics Inc. on West 32nd Street, around the corner from the Hotel Pennsylvania, which is serving as press headquarters.

Sales have been off by more than 50 percent this week, says Mr. Skaff, who sells electronics, watches and souvenirs. Typically, he closes at 11 p.m., but this week he has been closing at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.

“They’re blocking everywhere,” he says of the security measures.

Midtown Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue between West 29th and 42nd streets and Eighth Avenue from West 23rd to West 34th streets are closed to traffic during convention sessions, with limited access on other streets and at other times. Pedestrian access is limited around the Garden as well.

Business is down 70 percent at Bruce’s Burger Drive-in on Penn Plaza, says owner Bruce Caulfield. The lunch place between West 33rd and 34th streets closed Monday because the convention had a morning session.

“I’m told there would be no impact on business, even an increase in business. That’s totally inaccurate,” says Mr. Caulfield, who has been in business for 14 years.

The carryout eatery usually brings in 300 customers daily during the week, but only had 70 on Tuesday. The drop-off was attributed to the lack of midtown workers, who were told to take the week off.

His neighbor, Howard Kaplan, says business has been awful at his store, Penn Plaza Florist.

“I cannot wait for it to be over,” says Mr. Kaplan, who has been closing early, trying to leave the area before convention delegates begin arriving for the evening sessions.

Monday was the worst day for business this week for the florist, who says he had a “very hard time getting into the store, let alone doing business.”

The level of security caught him by surprise, despite briefings leading up to the convention.

“Nobody told us anything,” he says.

Mr. Kaplan predicts security — and business — will be worse today, when “el presidente will be here.”

“It’s going to be terrible,” he says.

Even the annual tax-free week hasn’t helped the midtown businesses. From Tuesday through Labor Day, items $110 or less are not charged sales tax.

City Council Speaker Gifford Miller held a press conference yesterday and toured businesses in the frozen zone. He has proposed a second tax-free week be held in October to ease the losses.

Things got so bad for the GreenPoint Bank branch at Seventh Avenue and West 33rd Street that it didn’t even bother opening. Signs on the doors say the bank is closed this week because of the convention. Three automated teller machines are available for withdrawals only.

The Stage Door Delicatessen, on Eighth Avenue and West 33rd Street across the street from the Farley Building where journalists are housed, was crowded with security agents and police officers eating lunch yesterday afternoon.

But manager Nick Argyris says business has been down 40 percent because regular customers can’t come through the security barriers. However, the security agents are drumming up the deli’s lunch business, he says.

Taxi drivers also say business is lagging because they can’t get near Penn Station and Madison Square Garden.

Even businesses outside the security zone are hurting.

“It’s horrible,” says Arnold Rubin, owner of Arnold Hatters Inc. at 535 Eighth Ave.

“We’re doing 25 percent of what we should be doing. The streets are empty.”

Usually the hat shop does well during tax-free week, but not this year.

“It would be nice if the mayor and the governor extended tax-free week,” says Mr. Rubin, whose family has been selling hats for 76 years. “I’ve never seen empty streets and the lack of interest.”

The store opened in December, after its original location on Eighth Avenue between 40th and 41st streets was closed through eminent domain to make way for a new skyscraper to be built for the New York Times.

“I can’t wait” for the convention to end, he says. “I already bought several candles to light.”

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