BY BENJAMIN FANG
On the cold morning on December 13, Jaime-Faye Bean woke up at 5:30 a.m. to terrible news.
She saw on the Citizen App, which provides users with instant crime and safety alerts, that a massive fire ripped through a row of stores on Queens Boulevard and 45th Street in Sunnyside. The five-alarm blaze started at around 2 a.m. the night before. Firefighters were still working on the flames by the time Bean arrived on site.
“I couldn’t believe it, I was just in complete shock,” said Bean, executive director of the Sunnyside Shines Business Improvement District (BID). “I knew I had to get into work as soon as possible. So I was out there along with a whole bunch of other people, just watching the place burn.”
When the smoke dissipated, the damage was revealed. Twelve people were injured, including seven firefighters, though all of the injuries were non-life threatening.
Six businesses were completely destroyed in the flames, including longtime eateries Sidetracks and New York Style Eats, Better Line Hardware, the newly opened Romantic Depot and a UPS store.
Sunnyside was devastated. As hundreds of onlookers watched the FDNY handle the aftermath of the fire, Bean and other business and community leaders sprang into action.
They began an online fundraising campaign on GoFundMe, which immediately took off. Donations came pouring in from residents. Many neighborhood businesses hosted their own fundraising events.
The following week, Sunnyside leaders hosted a large fundraiser at Sunnyside Community Services, featuring some of the best food, drinks and culture of the neighborhood. With cash donations and online ticket sales, the event raised more than $28,677.
The Queens Chamber Of Commerce was quick to jump in as well to support Sunnyside Shines and the business community.
“We spread the word via social media and via email blasts to our 17,000-plus distribution list,” said Chamber President and CEO Tom Grech. “Our Queens Chamber of Commerce Foundation quickly agreed to cut a check for $1,000 to the cause, and we are still working on getting the SBA to declare a limited state of emergency at the site”
As of January 4, the fire relief efforts raised $163,000. When it’s all said and done, Bean expects the total to near $170,000. “I never doubted for a moment that if we offered a channel, there would be this community outpouring,” she said.
Bean called the community response “phenomenal,” not something often seen in local neighborhoods.
“It really showcases what is special about Sunnyside, and the fact that people here are very attached to the neighborhood,” she added. “There is a connection to our neighborhood small businesses that you don’t always get in New York City anymore.”
The funds, managed by Sunnyside Shines, will be used as a short-term emergency response for the 100 employees who were affected by the fire. In December, the BID dispersed $59,000 in the form of checks to the workers to “meet their immediate cash needs.”
In January, Bean will cut a second round of checks once Sunnyside Shines receives the GoFundMe funds. They will also distribute grocery vouchers to the employees. Bean said she hopes to exhaust the emergency funds by the end of March.
The funds were put into a separate checking account that isn’t mixed with any of Sunnyside Shines’s other assets, she said. That account will be closed when the funds run out.
Bean, who worked in fundraising for 15 years before becoming executive director of the BID, said she wanted to be “airtight” with how they handled the contributions. She has attorneys involved to make sure protocols followed IRS regulations.
Every donation they received, even if it was anonymous, was listed on both the Sunnyside Shines website and the GoFundMe page. Bean will also have an independent auditor produce a financial review of the fundraiser that can be produced to the public.
“From the beginning, it’s been a huge mission of mine that this be meticulously handled,” she said, “that it be transparent and that it showcases the integrity of this organization.”
As for the small business owners who were impacted, Sunnyside Shines immediately connected them with the city Department of Small Business Services Emergency Management Team. They provided many resources, including pro-bono legal support, low-interest recovery loans and help with insurance claims.
Luckily, all of the businesses were insured. But Bean said that may not cover all of the financial costs. Dealing with the insurance companies will also be a “long-term project,” she said. One of the businesses, Better Line Hardware, is already working on reopening a new storefront on Greenpoint Avenue. Other businesses are at “different stages” of recovery.
Sidetracks and New York Style Eats, two restaurants that have been in the neighborhood for decades, face a more complicated proposition of restarting a whole restaurant from scratch.
Tony Tang, who owns the UPS store, said since the fire, they have rerouted much of their business to another UPS location at 46-28 Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City.
Tang is also “working really hard” on opening a pop-up store at 40-14 Queens Boulevard, near Lowery Liquor. He expects the pop-up to open sometime in February or March. But the fire still lingers on his mind. Seven UPS employees were affected, all of whom are now out of work. Tang said when he first learned of the disaster, his system “totally shut down.”
“It was like someone put an arrow in my heart and head,” he said. “It was painful.”
Though he’s unsure what the landlord will do with the building once it’s rebuilt, he hopes to return to his original store. He estimated that it may take two or more years to rebuild. “We want to be back,” Tang said.
A challenging, long-term issue is making sure all of the former employees find new work. Days after the fire, business leaders hosted a job fair, inviting local employers to discuss hiring opportunities. Roughly 30 workers attended that fair.
But according to Bean, as many as three-quarters of those 100 employees have not yet found work or are underemployed, only able to find part-time work. “That’s really the next phase,” she said. “There are still a lot of workers who haven’t been placed.”
Sunnyside Shines conducted a check-in after two weeks to see if the employees found employment. They’re planning to do a check-in at the four-week mark, and another after eight weeks.
At the end of December, the BID announced the creation of their Business Community Disaster Program, an initiative to provide short-term relief for individuals “suffering a loss of income or interest” in case there are any future emergencies like the Sunnyside fire or a natural disaster.
Bean said the organization wanted to make sure all the mechanisms they used this time are in place and well documented. In the event of another disaster, the BID would know how to respond, what to do and what not to do.
The executive committee of Sunnyside Shines’s board of directors can choose to activate the program in times of disaster. “We believe that, as much as we don’t want it to, there will always be disasters in the community,” Bean said. “You can prepare for the unexpected, but we’ve seen it.”
She added that Sunnyside Shines has a responsibility to local businesses and the larger community to be prepared during worst case scenarios. “This is something we hope we don’t have to call upon anytime soon,” she said, “but I think it’s important to be forward-thinking about it.”
Reflecting on the recovery efforts nearly one month after the fire, Bean said she felt confident Sunnyside Shines was the right organization to spearhead the initiative. Not only did they have the right capacity and staff, but they also had experience managing the financial, employee outreach and employee recovery aspects of it.
Looking ahead, the next steps for Bean include dispersing the rest of the short-term emergency funds, producing a financial audit and finding jobs for the employees. She’s also awaiting the fire marshal’s report, which will go into greater detail how the fire started in the first place.
In the next few weeks, the Sunnyside Shines leader will begin thanking the hundreds of organizations and individuals who were “very hands-on” in the recovery effort. She noted that the fundraisers had more than 1,400 total donors.
“That just underscores how this was a truly special group effort. It was truly something that was community driven,” Bean said. “It’s given me a lot of joy to see, in a fresh way, what a special community I have the privilege of working for.”