On June 22, New York City Democrats and Republicans will head to the polls in the primary election to select their candidates for Mayor. The current mix of candidates – eight Democrats and two Republicans – represents a diverse mix of personalities that largely mirrors the ethnic, religious, and socio-economic mélange that is New York City. And although some may think that in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 7-to-1 it is a foregone conclusion that the winner of the Democratic primary will eventually become win the November 2nd general election, one only need to be reminded that if anything, New Yorker City voters are best known for their practicality – particularly in times of crisis.
New York City’s Revival Must be a Key Objective of its Next Mayor
In the mid-1990s, when the city was consumed with a crime epidemic, New Yorker Democrats put aside party allegiances and voted in Republican Rudy Giuliani, a former prosecutor who had taken down the mob and ran on a promise to clean up the city. After 9/11, with lower Manhattan still fuming and with an uncertain financial future ahead, New Yorkers chose my former boss, Michael Bloomberg, a lifelong Democrat who ran as a Republican, correctly sensing that a successful business executive could rebuild Lower Manhattan and get the city back humming.
[callout]Retail comprises 12 percent of all New York City businesses and employs nearly nine percent of all private-sector workers. Perhaps even more importantly, New York City’s tourism sector draws heavily on its retail appeal; it is widely considered one of the world’s premier shopping destinations, drawing visitors from across the globe; it’s a vital component of the city’s social and cultural landscape and helps support a range of other sectors across the five boroughs.[/callout]
Now again, as New Yorkers head to the polls, the city once again finds itself awash in crisis. Covid-19 cost over 30,000 New Yorkers their lives and infected nearly one million. The issue of and social justice surrounding race and policing looms large. Yet perhaps the biggest issue on voters’ minds this election cycle is economic recovery – particularly getting the city’s small businesses back on track. And when it comes to New York City, although people around the world know it as the center of finance and fashion, retail – particularly small business retail – is the backbone of the local economy.
Retail at Risk
In 2019, prior to the pandemic, New York City’s retail sector accounted for over 32,000 businesses, provided nearly 350,00 jobs that paid over $16 billion in total wages, and contributed to over $55 billion in underlying taxable sales to the City’s economy. Retail comprises 12 percent of all New York City businesses and employs nearly nine percent of all private sector workers. Perhaps even more importantly, New York City’s tourism sector draws heavily on its retail appeal; it is widely considered one of the world’s premier shopping destinations, drawing visitors from across the globe; it’s a vital component of the city’s social and cultural landscape and helps support a range of other sectors across the five boroughs.
Yet Covid-19 took a devastating toll on New York City’s retail sector – especially traditional brick-and-mortar stores. Although many online retailers based in the city thrived, for traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, the blow of the contagion was seismic – in some cases fatal. In Manhattan, where foot traffic in key retail corridors initially fell by more than 90 percent during the darkest days of the pandemic, in-store shopping has struggled to gain footing even after the city has largely reopened; many stores are still experiencing foot traffic patterns well below 50 percent of its 2019 levels – largely a function of fewer tourists and commuters in the city.
Addressing New York City’s flailing traditional retail sector must be a major concern for the next mayor. But fixing it in a way that merely attempts to get foot traffic back to pre-pandemic levels and then calls it a day would be short-sighted and, ultimately, folly.
The next mayor must fully and completely reimagine New York City retail; he or she must leverage the opportunity afforded by the pandemic and lay track for the retail sector of the future. He or she must bring together top urban planners, technologists, economists, and industry experts to lay out a comprehensive plan for the future of the city’s retail landscape.
The next mayor’s Department of Small Business Services must be empowered to help small business owners future-proof their earnings by more aggressively embracing e-commerce, next level logistics and delivery, alternative payments, and other trends that proved so valuable during the shutdown. Incentives should be in place to reimagine a small business ecosystem that lifts up woman and minority-owned retailers.
The next mayor must lean on Wall St., Madison Avenue, and the Garment District not only to reignite Manhattan retailers, but to embolden an array of increasingly diverse retail corridors across the city.
And although in a complex metropolis like New York City there are always endless projects and initiatives competing for severely limited resources, the next mayor must recognize the connective fiber that the retail sector plays in making the Big Apple the international beacon of business and tourism that it is.
The next Mayor must make retail a priority. The city is counting on it.