Instead of cranking up the Wonder Wheel for visitors to Coney Island, Deno Vourderis now spends his days volunteering and worrying about the future of his community.
“We're in the same boat as a lot of businesses out there, you know, a lot of questions on how we're going to make it through,” said Vourderis, whose family owns and operates the Wonder Wheel amusement park, in a phone interview Friday.
But Coney Island is uniquely impacted, said Alexandra Silversmith, executive director of the Alliance for Coney Island, a public-private partnership that advocates for the community’s revitalization.
The business community was already struggling financially, with a commercial vacancy rate that was nearly double the average rate for the rest of the city. Many of the small businesses there are seasonal and depend on the tourism between Memorial Day and Labor Day to sustain them year-round. The amusement district's traditional opening on the weekend before Easter was postponed indefinitely this year.
The Alliance for Coney Island does not collect data on potential revenue loss. But with no Mermaid Parade, no hot dog-eating contests, and no Brooklyn Cyclones ball games allowed while the state is on PAUSE, Silversmith fears the worst.
“We're less than eight years out from Superstorm Sandy and having to rebuild from Sandy, and less than a decade later, they're taking another huge financial loss,” she said. “It's definitely keeping me awake at night. How can we get everybody through this and keep it alive and keep it iconic?”
Silversmith said there's been no reassurance from the city either.
“No, we haven't heard anything” about reopening the beaches for the summer, Silversmith said. “That's something else that we're going to be advocating for. It's important for the economy–not just the amusement district but the neighborhood corridor as well as Mermaid Avenue,” where small businesses have popped up because of overflow from the tourist hot spots.
Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked recently whether he thought the city's beaches could open this year, and responded that it's a "high bar" to achieve.
City Councilman Mark Treyger, whose district covers the neighborhood, said the CARES federal relief act didn’t seem to consider “the needs of seasonal economies because Coney Island cannot be the only seasonal economy of the country. I'm sure others have similar dynamics. That is something that we await further feedback and clarity on.” In particular, the Payroll Protection Program has a timeline requirement that doesn’t account for seasonal businesses doing more hiring in the summer, Treyger said.
Along with Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and State Senator Diane Savino, Treyger sent a letter Thursday to de Blasio and the heads of the city’s Small Business Services, Economic Development Corporation and the federal Small Business Administration asking for a conference call to discuss the issues.
“This temporary pain can quickly become generational pain if we cannot step in immediately and offer help to our small business community,” Treyger added.
“We will do everything we can during this hard time to support our City’s struggling small businesses in every borough, including offering technical assistance for any business applying for the Paycheck Protection Program,” said Julia Arredondo, de Blasio’s deputy press secretary, in an email statement. "Our federal partners have worked tirelessly to ensure more money on the federal level for small businesses, and we want to ensure that New York City’s small businesses get the help they need." She said the mayor’s office was advocating for a meeting with the SBA.
While awaiting governmental guidance, Silversmith said the Coney Island merchants are making plans to adapt to their new realities: “So it does vary a little bit by all the venues, but one in particular that all of them are planning to incorporate is temperature checks of their employees at the start of their shift,” she said. “They're all working on queueing methods, to make sure that there's six feet between each person who's waiting on line–whether that's for a hot dog or if that's to buy a ticket or if that's to get into the aquarium.”
Vourderis said this summer was supposed to be a grand commemoration of the Wonder Wheel, which was to mark its centennial this year.
“It's our 100th year and we had this whole nice celebration plan,” he said. “We were going to announce our plans for next year because we've also expanded. The park got bigger, we made a nice purchase of the land next to us. It's not a good time because we thought we'd be open to be able to help pay for all that. So literally it's even harder than just a normal year for us because we've got a lot of bills to pay, unfortunately.”
Meanwhile, Vourderis has stayed busy, making protective face shields for first responders on his 3D printers, which he bought to make backup parts for the park’s classic amusement rides.
“One of the things we're known for is a lot of our classic rides” that are from the 1940s and 1950s–“the parts are hard to find, or impossible to find. And back in the day, basically everything was made out of metals and steels. Today, we've gotten better with use of plastics; we've learned more about plastic gears and self-lubricating gears. So with 3D printers, we're able to manufacture the parts in-house. And we use the printers for those during the season and during the offseason," he said. "But ever since the pandemic hit, I saw that people were using their personal 3D printers to make face shields so we jumped on that.”
His company shipped off 650 face shields Friday morning, he said.
“You know, it's one of those things where everyone's just doing their part. And that has been inspiring," Vourderis said. "You can’t knock New York City down. You can beat it up a little bit, but it's always gonna come back. And I think, just like other catastrophes in our history, we'll come back better and stronger."