Biz group: We’ll clean Austin St.

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"People say put your money where your mouth is, so we're doing it," said Greg Salvit, owner of Chateau Jewelers and one of seven managers of the Austin-Continental United Merchants Group.

The group, comprising owners of businesses along Austin Street and Continental Avenue in Forest Hills, has raised $26,000 so far to bring a Manhattan-based organization that puts homeless people to working sweeping busy commercial streets into Forest Hills for the first six months of the program.

A ceremonial ribbon-cutting introducing the program, called the Doe Fund, to Austin Street has been scheduled for mid-November, Salvit said, and elected officials from Forest Hills were expected to attend.

Residents, business owners, and elected officials have said for months that the cleanliness of Austin Street, one of the borough's premier shopping areas, has become a major concern. In the latest effort to clean up Austin Street, a proposal crafted by state Sen. Daniel Hevesi (D-Forest Hills) and endorsed by Community Board 6 is slated to double the number of times the city collects garbage baskets in commercial areas of Forest Hills.

The Austin-Continental United Merchants Group formed unofficially several years ago as a group operating separately from the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce, Salvit said. Many of its supporters were chamber members.

After a clash over finances last winter, three of the chamber's board members - Salvit and two others - were fired from the board and the merchants group officially incorporated shortly after.

Leslie Brown, president of the Forest Hills Chamber, downplayed the level of animosity between the two groups that had punctuated chamber meetings and programs, such as the parking program that allows patrons of the chamber's member stores to park their cars in an Austin Street lot at a reduced rate of $2 for two hours. A Forest Hills magazine was launched, floundered and eventually folded during the contentious period several years ago as well.

"The chamber is thriving," Brown said, adding that the Doe Fund was "a wonderful, fine, professional organization."

But the introduction of a Doe Fund program at Austin Street has prompted speculation that some are planning to create a business improvement district on Austin Street, a notion the chamber has opposed several times when it has come up for discussion in the past.

A business improvement district pools money collected from a surcharge on business owners in the district to hire professional street cleaning services for the designated area. BIDs have been touted as having spruced up areas such as Times Square and Steinway Street in Astoria but are opposed in other places, where commercial tenants say soaring rents are already more than they can bear.

"You're talking about passing along additional costs to people who are already paying astronomical rent," said Chris Collett, executive director of the Forest Hills Chamber.

Although City Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) has said in the past a business improvement district would be the optimal way to maintain commercial areas, Salvit said that is not the goal of the Austin-Continental group.

But he did not rule out the possibility altogether.

"If it becomes in the community's best interest, then that's what will happen," he said.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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