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Merchants gearing up in Whitestone

Whitestone merchants are in the process of organizing an association to help promote their businesses and improve the district where they work.

The project is under the direction of the Queens Chamber of Commerce through a $10,000 grant from the office of Councilman Paul Vallone (D-Bayside). Greg Rose, spokesman for the chamber, said the undertaking is part of his group’s neighborhood entrepreneurship project to help underserved business areas that lack focus.

 “We’ve been successful in Jackson Heights, the Rockaways and elsewhere to see what the business communities need and help them, for example, in creating a website,” Rose said.

He added that a survey conducted in the Whitestone business area showed that merchants want more marketing, but that members are set to hold their first meeting next week to determine what the focus will be.

The Whitestone boundaries for the group are 150th Street between 14th Road and 12th Avenue and 14th Avenue off 150th Street. There are 97 storefronts with 91 businesses and six vacancies.

“Members will have to set goals, elect officers and determine the name they want to use,” Rose said. “We are just there to assist them.”

Vallone, who said he approached the chamber to get the program underway, said it would be a challenge in Whitestone. “There is no one defined block,” he said. “It’s spread out and hard for merchants to organize.”

He believes there is a “wonderful potential” for adding holiday lights, cleaner streets and a way to improve business. “This could be a precursor to a Business Improvement District or not. It’s up to them,” Vallone said. “It would be an ongoing effort.”

One of the merchants involved is George Isaakinis, owner of Harpell Chemist on 150th Street. The pharmacist said he is excited about the formation of the new group. “Hopefully, the group will provide a cohesive voice,” Isaakinis said. “There will be more reasons to shop locally and we hope it will help businesses flourish.”

He noted that the six empty stores are a problem and that it’s important to have a diversity of shops “to give people a reason to shop here.”

He wants to maintain the quaint village feeling in Whitestone and to keep the “shop small” mentality going as opposed to the big-box stores.

“This is the first promising step for the merchants,” Isaakinis said.

Rose indicated the chamber will have to speak with Vallone on later funding, but that it will be up to the merchants to determine the future of the program.

Meanwhile, the Welcome to Whitestone Commercial and Residential Civic Association is planning to revive its discount card program for members. Devon O’Connor, the civic president, said he should have the details worked out by mid-March.

The program allows civic members to get reduced prices at certain stores in the community. O’Connor started the program in 2011 and it continued until 2013 with around 20 businesses participating.

“Some businesses moved or closed so we need to update it,” he said.

A list of participating merchants and the discounts will be posted and updated on the group’s website,welcometowhitestone.com, once the latest program goes into effect.

In the past, discounts have included $2 off a car wash and 10 percent off tuition at a martial arts school.

See complete story at Queens Chronicle.