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Signage fix eludes leaders

The issue of English-language signage in downtown Flushing is dividing the community like no other issue as new voices get involved in the fracas.

For years signs with only a foreign language printed on them have adorned many businesses in downtown Flushing, angering many residents who speak only English.

Now community leaders are working to find a solution, but some critics say they are moving too slowly and that their efforts will not have enough of an impact, while business owners are concerned about the cost of changing their signs.

State Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) boldly created an English signage advisory board last year in hopes of bringing people together to find a way to address the concern.

Meng, who does not read Chinese fluently herself, has presided over a number of increasingly raucous meetings of the board, exposing herself politically in a way that no former Flushing politician has been willing to do. City Councilman Peter Koo (R-Flushing) and state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) have joined in the effort, as have a number of residents and representatives of local community groups.

Fred Fu, president of the Flushing Development Center and former president of the Flushing Chinese Business Association, seconded Koo’s remarks, but said he believes that existing businesses cannot be forced in a down economy to foot the bill for replacing their signs.

“We should do English signs, but we should let the business owners do it themselves. The elected officials should get funds so they can do it for free, because then why not do it? But if they have to pay for it, it’s too expensive,” Fu said. “Everybody knows English signs are needed, but how should they do it? It’s very difficult to get from A to B. The business groups and elected officials should help them.”

James Trikas, a community leader and member of the advisory board, takes umbrage with the contention that the shopkeepers are entitled to monetary assistance.

“I totally disagree there. They got away with not following the rules and regulations that were there. It’s not the burden for us to find funding for them, it is their burden,” he said. “They’re saying we don’t have any money. You created the situation, you created the environment of alienation by doing those signs that way and implying that others are not welcome.”

Meng, Koo and Stavisky have said repeatedly that it will take time to get business owners to change their signs and that a compromise must be worked out.

Koo, who immigrated to America from Hong Kong in 1971 and later founded and became CEO and president of the Starside Pharmacy chain in Flushing, said all new businesses should be educated about the importance of installing English signs, which he believes is the best way to encourage them to do so.

“In the long term, we have to educate business people and business associations that before they open the store they need to have English first, then their own language on signs,” he said. “As a business owner, they can make their own decision, but I think if they do business here, they should have English on their signs so people know what kind of business they are.”

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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