January 9, 2014

Westchester County
Business Journal


Weather puts chill on retail sales

Arctic temperatures limited holiday foot traffic in Westchester’s shopping districts, while a snowstorm served as icing on the cake, marooning potential last-minute shoppers in their homes.

Claudia Baker, owner of All Paws Gourmet Pet Boutique in Rye, said she relied on some old, out-of-town visitors to counterbalance the cool pace of customers on Purchase Street, usually one of the county’s premier shopping destinations. Part of the problem may have been that while some were visiting Westchester, many locals were visiting elsewhere.

“We have people visiting family who always stop in every year when they come to town,” said Baker, who has run the store for the past seven years. “But other than that, our regular customers are just away.”

Although the weather reduced the pet shop’s holiday foot traffic, it also boosted interest in some winter items. That business could carry over after more snow and the so-called polar vortex this month.

“What I’m selling now are the booties that protect dogs’ paws from rock salt and freeze burns while keeping their paws warm,” Baker said. “Given the way the temperature has been so far, these are really crucial for them.”

Across the nation, retail sales showed a 2.3 percent growth during the holiday shopping season period between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24, 2013 compared with 2012, according to MasterCard Advisors, the professional services arm of MasterCard Worldwide Inc. that provides consumer-spending data based on credit card transactions.

A recent report released by MasterCard SpendingPulse provided market data by tracking customer spending during the holidays on apparel, electronics, jewelry, luxury and home furniture and furnishing categories. Jewelry saw the biggest increase in sales year to year.

However, small jewelry store owners in Westchester say their experiences don’t mesh with the statistics.

Joe Soares, owner of Cressida Jewelers on Mamaroneck Avenue in White Plains, said small jewelry stores are hurting as more consumers shop online. According to MasterCard’s SpendingPulse, e-commerce sales rose by double digits. Soares said the holiday weather paired with a lack of an online presence for his store hurt his revenue.

John Silver, an employee at Cressida Jewelers, said the Mamaroneck Avenue corridor near the city center and a strip of restaurants and bars does not regularly attract luxury-goods customers.

“Business is not too good for jewelry stores on this avenue,” Silver said. “The only people who come here are our regulars who come for the holidays…But this street is not the place people come to shop.”

During the last three years, Cressida has bought gold from customers and then melted jewelry down for resale. The recent holiday didn’t see a lot of action in the gold exchange because of the plummeting price of metal, Smith said.

Nationwide, the apparel sector saw slight growth during the holidays, while luxury and electronics remained flat, according to the MasterCard SpendingPulse. A separate analysis by MasterCard Advisors showed that large retailers performed better than smaller retailers because of increased sales and promotions that started early in the holiday season.

Robert Bernstein, owner of Mount Kisco Sports at 7 S. Moger Ave., said his business “could’ve been better for the holidays.”

Not only did the snow keep Bernstein’s store closed for four days during the holiday rush, but he said foot traffic is scarce due to a number of empty storefronts, businesses turning over and a difficult parking situation. Holiday shoppers in his store would often run out of the store due to expiring meters.

“It’s so depressing and nasty when they get a ticket,” Bernstein said.

Phillip Sohn, owner of Thomson’s Art Supply Inc. on Mamaroneck Avenue in White Plains, said the Christmas shopping season was slower in 2013 than 2012 because of the weather. Sohn’s father, Young Sohn, who handed down the business to his son three years ago, said he was optimistic business will pick up with increased demand from schools reopening after winter break.

Thomson’s, a retail remnant of the city’s downtown prior to its influx of bars and banks, relies on architects, engineers, designers and art students to keep them open. Thomson’s provides specialized services: customized glass cuts, dry mounts and frames.

That uptick in business is usually expected in January and February, the Sohns said. But Silver, the employee at Cressida, was doubtful that the next big jewelry holiday, Valentine’s Day, would fare much better than 2013’s holiday season.

“It’s more about flowers and chocolates than rings and necklaces for couples,” Silver said. “And dads are getting their daughters iPads and iPhones instead of sterling silver necklaces.”


april 17, 2014

Fairfield County
Business Journal


Businesses, nonprofits take STEM to next level

More than 500 future scientists, developers, engineers and mathematicians rolled up their sleeves and immersed themselves in a day of lab activities followed by a career expo at a recent symposium at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk.

The event, which was funded by the Carver Foundation of Norwalk Inc. and hosted by the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, invited professionals from 20 businesses and four organizations to engage students in their respective fields.

About 200 students gathered in the morning to build robots, fuel cell-powered cars and wind turbines. They also learned about marine animals and dissected aquatic wildlife. In the afternoon, 300 middle and high school students from the Norwalk area joined the Brien McMahon students for a STEM-related career expo as they engaged in conversations with professionals at 20 exhibits.

With a national emphasis on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — businesses and nonprofits are joining forces to expose students to science- and math-driven career opportunities. The event was one way the community and secondary schools are collaborating to introduce students to the four major fields that are in high demand.

“STEM is one of those things that are so in demand with Connecticut businesses,” said Judy Resnick, CBIA education foundation co-partner. “We want our students to find good jobs and earn good wages. But these are the few jobs that require you to have a solid foundation in science and math. Many careers in high paying jobs involve science and math, and we want to make sure students are interested and able to be successful.”

On the higher education level, CBIA has partnered with guidance counselors and educators to create as many bridges and pathways from high school to college as possible, further streamlining the track that allows students to pursue a STEM education. Often, students have flexible course loads that allow them to avoid classes like physics, computer science, engineering and calculus.

Tarek Sobh, University of Bridgeport’s dean of engineering and senior vice president for graduate studies and research, plus a father of four school-aged children in Shelton, said schools, nonprofits and businesses play a vital role in preparing students for STEM-related careers. But he said instilling a desire to pursue science and math begins at home.

Sobh’s oldest son, Omar, a Shelton High School graduate, majors in neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania. His daughter, Haya, a current Shelton High student, is interested in becoming a physician. And his two youngest, fourth and third graders at Shelton Elementary School, are intrigued by technology (or that’s what he likes to think when they play with his gadgets).

As a science-conscious parent, Sobh said he is lucky because all he has to do is encourage his children to tag along while he’s on the job.

“My kids have seen what I’ve been doing for years,” Sobh said. “Since they were little, I took them to my robotics lab on campus, and I let them play around with the machinery. Sometimes, I go to conferences and they tag along, so they hear what I present.”

Admitting his situation is different, Sobh nonetheless urged parents to support their children’s STEM curiosities, perhaps leading them to jobs ranked by the Department of Labor Statistics as among the highest paying.

Two Greenwich parents, Camilla Gazal and Flavia Naslausky, recently opened Zaniac, an after-school franchise in Greenwich last December, which provides STEM-related programs that run six weeks each. Classes range from chess to computer programming and meet after school on weekdays and Saturdays. They are capped at five children and taught by trained instructors.

Since mid-December, Zaniac has enrolled more than 150 students. The most popular programs include computer programming, followed by Minecraft Exploration, a computer game that rewards cooperative building behaviors, and LEGO Robotics. The business also provides a Zane Math program that aligns with Connecticut’s common core standards.

With enough exposure to STEM-related curriculum, students develop an affinity for the courses, Naslausky said. Demand for more STEM programs has been coming straight from the children in her classroom, she added.

“On snow days, we had kids organizing their own play dates here at Zaniac and around structured STEM activities,” Naslausky said.

One experience that gave Naslausky and Gazal confidence that students are growing interested in STEM was when students at Zaniac created a LEGO robotic solar-powered panel and positioned it in front of Zaniac’s office.

“They were very keen on generating power to lower Zaniac’s electricity bills,” Naslausky said.

Parents are already signing up for Zaniac’s summer boot camp, a six-week course that gives students a taste of each of its programs: math, robotics, chess, computer programming and touch typing. Gazal said students from almost every elementary, middle and private school in Greenwich are represented in Zaniac’s programs. The Post Road West business has also attracted students from nearby communities in Westchester County, N.Y.


september 4, 2014

Fairfield County
Business Journal


Wrestling with how to keep urban communities intact

Sometimes it takes sweat equity and faith to rebuild a community.

Bridgeport and Cincinnati may be 700 miles apart, but each share high percentages of residents living below the poverty level — 24 and 29 percent, respectively. They also have in common organizations committed to restoring balance in economies made lopsided by urban renewal.

The flight of the urban poor from redeveloped areas is a growing problem nationwide. Urban renewal projects, which often promise to bring a diverse group of people together, can create an exodus of the urban poor. For community leaders, it has been a struggle to keep their neighborhoods intact.

The president of a Fairfield County nonprofit based in Bridgeport and a Korean missionary couple who started a church in Cincinnati have dedicated themselves to what they believe are cornerstones to building a community: One focuses on providing low-income families with homes and the other is establishing a church that serves not just its members but its surrounding neighborhood.

For years, urban renewal has been used by municipalities as an economic engine that revitalizes central business districts as well as residential neighborhoods.

But often, the people who have lived in these neighborhoods have been forced to leave as rents rise.

Bruce Berzin, president of Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County, sees value in getting the urban poor back in the labor force by motivating them to find jobs. His projects are specifically geared toward low-income families and individuals who are working but are in need of affordable housing. The idea is to provide a next step for people who are actively trying to break the cycle of poverty and empower them to serve in volunteer projects throughout their neighborhood, he said.

“In order for a family to get a Habitat house, they have to be living in housing that’s unacceptable in one form or another — whether it be affordability, the conditions of the house or overcrowding,” Berzin said. “The other criteria are that they have to be able to pay off the mortgage we provide and be willing to partner with us in providing 500 hours of sweat equity.”

Habitat for Humanity covers all towns on the Connecticut coast between Greenwich and Stratford, but the vast majority of homes are in Bridgeport, Berzin said. Most recently, it has been buying city-owned lots and turning them into single-family homes and duplexes in Bridgeport, which is a major focus for urban renewal.

“The city has been selling us empty lots for $1, and they can be sure within a year of selling us a lot, there will be a house and a family paying for it,” Berzin said. “It’s such a great deal for the city. These vacant lots cost the city a lot of money. They attract garbage and crime and that costs the city money to deal with them. To have that transformed into a home with people who will create a community and pay taxes is a win-win.”

Another city, another take

In Cincinnati, Pastor Johann Kim and his wife, Sister Grace — a physics professor and children’s hospital nurse, respectively — have a long-term vision for urban renewal in their city. Their idea is to create a church in the heart of Over-the-Rhine, a neighborhood known for high crime, gun violence and drug deals. The church would serve as a place that fulfills basic needs such as shelter, food and a place to worship.

The couple, who has lived in Cincinnati since the late 1990s, was uncertain about where their church would meet for the past seven months. It had outgrown its rented space inside Prince of Peace Church, which had asked them to relocate because it wanted to renovate and expand. Kim said he kept searching for available spaces without any clear leads on a permanent church building. But he said the ultimate peace and comfort came when he heard of a deal that was too good to refuse.

The pastor ended up buying an abandoned church building at a lower-than-expected price last month, and for the first time in nearly two decades, Living Water Ministry finally has a permanent meeting space to host Sunday services, church activities and Bible studies.

When I met the Kims this summer on a missions trip with Remnant Westside Church in Manhattan, I saw they were passionate about two things: sharing their ministry on the streets of Cincinnati and gutting an abandoned, derelict property to build a house of worship. My team of church volunteers had the chance to help with demolition and construction on the church site for about a week. Many of the neighbors we met were African-American single mothers and children who said that Living Water Ministry has been a vital organ in the community. The common thread in their stories is that if it weren’t for this church showing them hospitality and compassion, they would be in a much different place.

Despite the reality that gentrification may push out the urban poor, the Kims bought the church building in faith that it will provide a wellspring of resources in the Over-the-Rhine community for generations to come. The church is in the heart of the city around the corner from the couple’s home, which has a vineyard painted on the outer wall with a Bible verse that reads: “I am the vine, you are the branches... apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5.”