As mask and vaccine mandates are easing and remote workers are starting to picture themselves out of the living room and back at the desk, the Garment District Alliance in New York City is seeking partners to help rejuvenate the neighborhood’s garment manufacturing.
Requests for proposals are being accepted through Feb. 25 for what is the third year of the Business Development Collaborative, an annual program designed to rev up the industry and the area. The multiyear, $2.5 million program relies on the competitive process to select partners that hail from different fields. Job training, one-on-one consulting and advisory services are among the offerings for businesses, staffers and start-ups.
While the Garment District Alliance doesn’t have a set number of companies that it is hoping to work with, the expectation is that four to six will be selected, according to vice president Jerry Scupp. “It’s really about the competitiveness of the industry. We’re looking to add jobs and create more economic viability for the jobs that are here now. What we’d really like is growth,” he said.
That said, this year’s applicants are mapping out plans for a neighborhood that has been transformed by the pandemic with office vacancies still relatively high and the number of people without housing concerning some tenants and neighborhood stakeholders. Noting how the Business Development Collaborative was developed before COVID-19 took hold in 2019, Scupp said that once it did set in operators scrambled to adapt to provide programming remotely and determine issues needed to be addressed.
Without question, the landscape of the garment district has drastically changed. As of late October, only 28 percent of Manhattan office workers were in their offices on an average weekday, according to a survey by the Partnership for New York City. And one-third of employers indicated that they expect their office needs to decline over the next five years. But it is not just cubicle-filled skyscrapers that are light on Monday-through-Friday occupants. As of last summer, nearly 30 percent of the retail storefronts in Midtown East and Grand Central were vacant, according to a Real Estate Board of New York report.
Program operators such as Pratt Institute, the Fashion Institute of Technology and Nest have done a lot of outreach to get a better read on the community. As an open call, this year’s program is expected to attract some previous participants. “As long as you fit the parameters — whether you’ve been here before or not — we’re looking to get results,” Scupp said.
Attracting and maintaining skilled workers, establishing reliable supply chains, getting some companies more up-to-speed with technology to develop markets and improve marketing, and ramping up e-commerce are some areas that need attention, Scupp said.
Asked whether concerns about safety and crime in the neighborhood will be a deterrent in reeling in partners this year, Scupp said, “There’s no getting around that this district’s been hit pretty hard and has a lot of issues in that realm. But I don’t think it seems to be that much of a deterrent to anybody at this point. If anything, that’s gone down or at least stabilized so there’s an opportunity to work here. The access to transportation of course makes it easier for people to get here,” said Scupp, referring to the proximity to multiple subway lines, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station.
Allowing that public safety is a concern for all businesses (in the Garment District and other areas of the city), Scupp said that is being addressed in other ways. Working with New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ administration will be one step in improving the situation, he said. “A lot of these problems that you’re referring to have a lot of deep roots. It has to do with mental illness, drug treatment, police enforcement, laws that have been changed about categories of crime and prosecution of those crimes. There are a lot of different levels of the mayor’s office and the city council, and state law that needs to be revisited and perhaps tweaked on certain things to have an affect in this area,” Scupp said. “We’ve been advocating very strongly and heavily throughout this time, even more so now to get those changes.”
Overall crime in New York City increased by 38.5 percent last month compared to January 2021, according to New York City Police Department statistics. Every major crime category saw an increase last month except for murder, which decreased by 15.2 percent. Robbery increased by 33.1 percent and grand larceny hiked up 58.1 percent. In addition, citywide shootings climbed 31.6 percent last month compared to January 2021, the NYPD reported.
Although there was talk last fall of having an assortment of Business Improvement District leaders appeal to Adams’ office collectively after he took office to air their neighborhood concerns and strategize, that hasn’t happened yet. Noting how each area has its own issues, Scupp said the Garment District Alliance is “taking on a lot of this ourselves to address our problems” by working with different agencies.
The Garment District Alliance’s executive director Barbara Blair, for example, serves on a Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg-organized task force that is addressing street-level crimes, especially the rising rate of shoplifting. The Garment District Alliance has teamed with fellow Manhattan BIDs, law enforcement and other small business leaders to form the Manhattan Small Business Alliance. The alliance will first meet this month and recommendations are expected to be finalized in May.
Workers who haven’t visited or commuted to the Garment District in weeks, months or longer will find some changes when they return. Asked what they would see if they could have walked down the street with him Wednesday, Scupp said, “This afternoon would probably be not so bad because it’s still cold. There’s definitely a lot of socially challenged people out there. It’s not as though a lot of this is new. In New York, there’s always been an element in our street environment. But if you’ve been in your apartment or in your house in the suburbs for a year or two and you’re not used to it, getting back to city life is a little different.”
However, the Garment District Alliance is hopeful thanks partially to messaging from city officials that they understand the importance of Midtown, which is where hundreds of thousands of people funnel through each day. In addition, the Garment District has nearly 20 percent of all of Manhattan’s hotel rooms. “We may not be a tourist attraction but this is where the tourists go to sleep and wake up. Along with the transportation hubs and the fact that we’re surrounded by Times Square, the Empire State Building and Bryant Park, this is an important part of Midtown. The city sees that and wants to work with us to help straighten that out,” Scupp said. “This program is just part of it. We want to get people back here.”
Public art continues to be a means to dress up the neighborhood. Twenty colorful illuminated rings make up “Passage,” an installation up at the Broadway Pedestrian Plaza. Just a few years ago, there was an influx of street-level bars and restaurants, as well as a few rooftop ones, and the aim is to return to that, Scupp said.
Acknowledging how a nurse, Michelle Go, was killed after being pushed in front of a subway train in the Times Square station, Scupp cited that and a similar incident as tragedies. How that could impact workers’ willingness to ride the subway, Scupp said he can’t get into the heads of the general public. “But it’s definitely a narrative that tends to build and get re-enforced. It’s important to counteract that narrative with the positive. Look, I’m not going to say it’s great out here,” he said. “But you’ll be comfortable coming to work each day. We’ve never stopped. And it is getting better. You read so much and hear so much. These are all terrible things. Whether they are related or a pattern, I don’t know. But there are positive stories as well. We need to focus on that.”
Comparing the current situation to how the public’s impression of the city’s safety in the early ’90s did not reflect improvement from the ’70s and ’80s, Scupp said. “There was this lag in the public perception in how safe New York was. From our perspective, we’re trying to not let this crime city image story take hold. I’m not saying it’s not challenging. But it’s safe to come back. We want people to feel that. We also feel that the more people come back, the safer it will get.”