BY JON CRONIN
Rockaway Beach restaurant and store owners are trying to make the best of a bad situation after the city announced that 11 blocks of the area’s beachfront would be closed this summer due to safety concerns regarding erosion.
On Cross Bay Parkway, where drivers exit the bridge into Rockaway Beach, Connolly’s Bar Manager Michael O’Leary was outside on a bright Friday afternoon, scribbling a chalk message that read, “No beach? No problem!” However, he confessed that Memorial Day weekend saw a 40 percent drop in business from last year.
“We have to have an attitude of positivity,” he said.
O’Leary has been working at the bar for 11 years and managing it for three years. Similar to other locals, he just shakes his head when asked about the beach closings. He noted that Connolly’s Bar will survive, in part, because the bar’s owner also owns the building.
O’Leary is a longtime denizen of Rockaway Beach. He was a lifeguard at the beach for 10 years. He’s seen it all. In 2012, he lost everything to Hurricane Sandy. O’Leary disagrees with this year’s closures.
“You can close the beaches, but on a hot day people will get in the water,” he said.
Mara Valentino, who owns Uncle Louie G’s on Rockaway Beach Boulevard, is also attempting to remain upbeat, although she believes that media exposure regarding the closure leads people to believe that all of the beaches are closed.
“So what, 11 blocks are closed. All the same stuff that was here last year is here this year,” she noted.
“We’re already feeling the pinch,” said her husband, Michael, who pointed out that there isn’t a big box store anywhere in the Rockaways. “We are a community of small businesses. It is the entire local economy.”
He added that the ice cream shop he operates with his wife is open year round and they depend on the money earned in the summer to pay the rent through the winter.
“You’re going to see some of the small businesses go under,” he added.
Matthew Kisilenko, the manager of Boarders surf shop on Beach 92nd Street, said that so much of the store’s business is based on foot traffic.
He noted that it’s difficult to know whether the summer will be a success based on the first weekend.
“The city rarely does the right thing by this neighborhood,” said Kisilenko, a surfer and lifelong Rockaway resident, in response to the closure of the beaches.
Since his childhood, Kisilenko noted that the city adds sand onto those beaches every three years and, “like clockwork,” three years later, it erodes. Kisilenko pointed out that the beaches with jetties are fine, and the community is waiting for Beach 91st to Beach 102nd Street to be given jetties by the Army Corp of Engineers.
“What is the Army Corps of Engineers waiting for?” he asked.
At the Beach 97th boardwalk concession stand, in the middle of the 11 blocks of closed beach, vendors had paid for the spaces long before the closure was announced. Michael Powers, the managing partner of the Beach 97th Street concession stand, which has 10 independent vendors, said, “My head is still exploding over the whole thing.”
“Business is just one chapter of this whole thing,” he said. “I dispute the fundamental argument of why they’re closing the beaches.”
Similar to many of the vendors, he surfs and is frustrated that surfers can’t use the beach. He said that when surfers enter at Beach 91st Street, the current takes them west toward the closed beaches, and then they have to paddle back. He believes that there should be an exit for them at the concession stands. Powers said that he saw a surfer leave the water and then try to hop the fence at the concession stand, and the Park Rangers chased him back over. The surfer went back in the water and paddled back to Beach 91st Street. Powers wondered whether emergency medical services could successfully reach someone in the water at a fenced-off beach.
When asking his fellow vendors about their prospects for the summer, they are cautiously optimistic. They shrug and assume that they will still make money. Powers understands the challenge, but is undaunted.
“We’re all in,” he said. “The show must go on.”
Powers has been managing the stand for eight years—prior to Hurricane Sandy—and has seen the worst.
“At least now we have a new boardwalk and all the beaches are interconnected,” Powers said.
He added that the concession stand area will host concerts and cultural events throughout the summer, similar to lineups of summers past, and believes that such events will continue to be a draw.
“This is the heart of Rockaway Beach culture,” he said. “We have the entertainment programming all lined up.”
A spokeswoman for the city’s Parks Department said that greeters will be hired to instruct beachgoers on closures and direct them to the concession stands at Beach 97th. The agency is also working with the vendors to plan more events. The Beach 97th concession area will also host live performances at 1 p.m. on various summer days.
“This could be the best summer yet—culturally. Financially is yet to be seen,” Powers said.