Sunday, April 18, 2010

Rego Park Journal - Outpost of Economic Cheer in Recession-Weary Queens by Joseph Berger -

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Shoppers have flocked to the new Rego Center II in Queens, which features three midrange clothing and housewares stores. Yana Paskova for The New York Times

Worlie Steven Moore spent much of his working life selling stylish men’s suits in luxury stores like Saks Fifth Avenue. But in February 2009 he was laid off and spent nearly a year out of work, mostly catching up on reading because looking for employment in his field during a recession seemed futile.

“I thought I’d never get another job,” said Mr. Moore, a tall, genial man of 56 with a shaved Yul Brynner dome. “I thought I’d have to go to another industry.”

But he did get another job in his field. He is now selling Hugo Boss suits and other designer labels for Century 21 — if at a steeper discount than he was accustomed to — just a few blocks from his home in Lefrak City.

Mr. Moore is one of more than 1,000 people who have landed or will soon land jobs at a new six-acre mall in Rego Park, Queens. Where a parking lot once stretched, there now stands a streamlined shopping plaza, Rego Center II, shaded by a parachutelike canopy featuring three midrange clothing and housewares stores — Kohl’s, T. J. Maxx and Century 21 — and with a Costco on the way.

The mall, with its jobs for salespeople, cashiers, security officers, cleaning workers and managers, is a bright outpost of economic cheer in the gray sea of the recession. It is also a robust shot in the arm for a city that, according to Barbara Byrne Denham, chief economist of Eastern Consolidated, a Manhattan real estate investment services firm, has lost 167,500 jobs since the recession began. In Queens alone, 30,000 residents lost their jobs just in the 12 months ending February.

Shoppers, scouting out the wares in these fresh temples of merchandise near the Long Island Expressway, are excited, too. On a recent rainy Tuesday, Julia Spears, 29, who immigrated from Dublin eight years ago and lives nearby, in Middle Village, was searching for some outfits at Century 21 for her job as a commercial real estate manager. She said the new mall heightened her optimism.

“If the major conglomerates think they can do well in this type of environment,” Ms. Spears said, “you have to hope that’s the case.”

She offered one skeptical note about the mall, however. With unemployment still high, she asked: “Can the community support it? Is it sustainable?”

But to the scores of shoppers in the new stores in the mall on this routine workday, such questions were not uppermost.

“I love this place — I’m going to die here,” said Yanick Lochard, 60, a retired legal secretary who lives in the neighborhood and was visiting the mall for the second time. “It’s convenient. Everything is right here. You don’t have to go far. Everybody’s complaining that the economy is so bad, but I don’t understand. So many people are shopping.”

Rego Park, a patchwork of handsome apartment houses and single-family homes known for its Bukharian immigrants and the restaurants that sprout up around them, is part of a bustling shopping mecca. Together with the Queens Center nearby in Elmhurst and the original Rego Center, the neighborhood now has at least three malls with national chains like Macy’s, Sears, Marshalls and Old Navy, as well as dozens of smaller chain boutiques.

“Anybody who’s traveling from this end of Queens doesn’t have to go to Nassau County and Roosevelt Field,” said Frank Gulluscio, district manager of local Community Board 6. “Everything’s right there — parking, food and great retail. We’re not sending those jobs out to Nassau. We’re keeping them right here in New York City.”

When Kohl’s opened on March 3 and offered one-day sales, lines of shoppers snaked in front, waiting to enter. James Avellino, the store’s manager, who described its niche as “value oriented” and “family focused,” said that customers were drawn by the convenient store hours, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. For its part, Century 21 is offering the deep discounts on designer labels that shoppers would otherwise have to go to its Lower Manhattan store to get at that price.

Relief seems to be the predominant emotion among the workers within the new stores. Almost every one of them approached had spent considerable time unemployed.

Lindora Holmes, 57, another Century 21 salesperson, said she was jobless for more than two years, after she was laid off by an auto parts manufacturer in Long Island City.

“It’s good to be back,” she said.

Sales jobs at the malls generally pay $8 an hour — not much above the $7.25 minimum wage. But, Ms. Holmes said, “It’s better than not having anything at all,” adding, “If your manager sees how you work, it’s an opportunity for you to move up to the next level.”

Ana Vigniero, 37, a spirited saleswoman at Kohl’s, said she had been out of work for a year after losing her job as a restaurant supervisor.

“I was going to two or three interviews a day,” said Ms. Vigniero, a single mother of two. “Now, I’m very happy.”

Her colleague Jonathan Giraldo, 24, was without work for close to seven months after losing a construction job.

“It felt terrible,” he said. “The bills don’t wait.”

The older workers seem to be the most delighted at their good fortune. Some had despaired of ever getting hired again.

“I heard about the Great Depression,” said Mr. Moore, the suit salesman. “Now I know what it’s like to live through the great recession.”