BY CHRISTINE SHOW
When members of the Long Island City/Astoria Chamber of Commerce gather this week, it will be the first time they will meet as an official organization.
The group was certified by New York State on September 5 as a new, not-for-profit organization more than a year after business owners in western Queens set out to form the group designed to help boost economic development.
The chamber’s first formal meeting will be held at the Waterfront Crabhouse in Long Island City. The chamber’s members are elated that this day has finally arrived.
“This is a huge step,” said Arthur Rosenfield, the chamber’s founder and president. “If you’re a business owner, there are some things you can’t do alone. For local businesses, this is a way to address common needs and articulate those needs.”
Despite tough economic times, a number of businesses in western Queens have continued to flourish, Rosenfield said. During the recession, several local community banks worked with small businesses on their financing so they could stay afloat, he said.
Long Island City and Astoria has also experienced a residential boom in recent years. For example, more than 30 new residential buildings in Long Island City were completed by the end of 2010, according to a report on development projects from the Long Island City Business Improvement District.
The new chamber is another service now available to Leslie Nilsson, owner of Sage General Store in Long Island City. She said businesses can benefit from organizations like the new chamber as she has with the Long Island City Partnership, a separate group that also advocates for local economic development. That group frequently updates her on local issues that could affect her business.
“They keep you informed of zoning changes and they keep you informed of government agencies,” she said. “I feel like they’ve been my go-to people when I need something.”
Although there are other business-oriented groups within Queens, the new chamber aims to serve commercial interests specifically in Long Island City, Astoria and nearby areas.
“Our job is to make sure the business community is strong,” Rosenfield said.
He said the new chamber will now focus its efforts to work in committees to develop initiatives on tourism, lifelong learning opportunities and improve relationships with small business owners and local officials.
The very existence of a chamber can draw prospective businesses to open or expand because proprietors are reassured that a group will be devoted to their concerns, said Marvin Berk, chief executive officer of WestGroup, a consulting and marketing-design firm in Long Island City.
“We can work to provide outreach to the kind of businesses we want to bring here,” he said.
The chamber’s goal to expand the business community comes at an appropriate time with the increased residential growth, said Seth Bornstein, executive director of the Queens Economic Development Corporation.
“The chamber is a reflection of the growth of Long Island City and Astoria,” he said. “It’s no surprise that business owners are getting more creative and looking for ways to grow.”
Indeed, members of the chamber are convinced of the area’s potential.
“This has become a renaissance for development,” said Renos Kourtides, the chamber’s chair.
The chamber will allow business leaders to drum up ways to increase the customer base for local retailers, restaurants and other companies. Raquel Salas, a chamber board member, said she is organizing a plan to create a year’s worth of events to entice people to visit the area and wander into local businesses to shop.
“We need foot traffic so our local businesses can thrive,” said Salas, who has owned Big City Graph-x & Printing since 1997.
Even before the chamber was officially recognized by the state, its members were already offering support to existing businesses. They guided company owners on licensing issues and met with local elected officials to underscore the needs of the region’s businesses.
Rosenfield said the board hopes to expand its membership to 200 members by the end of the year. By the end of 2013, the group’s goal is to grow to 2,000 members.