Powerful supermarket mogul, pols, press mayor to stop subsidies
A second front in the battle to keep food delivery company FreshDirect from moving to Port Morris moved to the steps of City Hall, as South Bronx community activists joined a powerful grocery store lobby and two City Council members to urge the mayor to nix the deal.
Speaking on behalf of John Catsamatidis, the CEO of the Gristedes supermarket chain, Vince Dabone called the claim that FreshDirect deserves public subsidies “laughable.” A billionaire and former mayoral candidate, Catsimatidis has thrown his considerable influence behind the New York Association of Grocery Stores, which supports South Bronx Unite’s boisterous opposition to the FreshDirect deal.
The nearly $130 million in subisidies promised to FreshDirect by the state, the city and the Bronx amount to helping “one business to put others out of business,” Dabone charged.
Speakers at the City Hall press conference on Nov. 14 said the subsidies were a potential deathblow to many mom-and-pop stores and bodegas around the city.
Mychal Johnson, a member of Community Boad 1 and a spokesman for the grassroots group South Bronx Unite, which has filed suit to stop the move, said Mott Haven residents were blindsided by the swiftness of the deal last February, saying it was announced “two days before the first public hearing. That’s ridiculous. Where is the democratic process?” he asked.
Johnson added that FreshDirect “insulted us even more” by bringing “discarded and damaged trucks to the Harlem River Yards” after its Queens facility was flooded following Hurricane Sandy.
Two members of the City Council joined the opposition to the deal, adding their names to Bronx elected officials who had previously questioned it.
“When you give one entity unfair advantage over others, there is something wrong with the equation,” said Councilwoman Letitia James of Brooklyn, adding, “I’m concerned that grocery stores all over the city are suffering.”
Councilman Dan Halloran of Queens called the subsidies a “corporate bailout,” and said, “The last thing we need to do is take city dollars and give them to one business whose business is to put out of business hundreds, if not thousands, of others.”
Bettina Damiani, director of Good Jobs NY, a non-profit group that scrutinizes deals involving public subsidies, pointed out that despite public perception that the deal with FreshDirect is done, “This is still a proposal. No money has been allocated.”
Damiani doubted South Bronx residents would have gone along with the deal had they been consulted on it. She said, “The future of economic development must be in rebuilding our city, rebuilding infrastructure after Hurricane Sandy,” rather than in subsidizing specific businesses.
Irene Prestigiacomo, a business owner from Willets Point in Queens, spoke in support of South Bronx Unite, comparing her plight with what she says Mott Haven groceries and bodegas will face. A million-and-a-half square acres in that neighborhood have been slated for development into a massive mall at the cost of $200 million.
“They victimize businesses in small neighborhoods like my own to the benefit of the well-connected,” she said.
After the press conference ended, a spokesman for FreshDirect passed around a printed statement aimed at counteracting the criticism. It said, “58 percent of our total incentives package comes through real estate tax abatements,” not taxpayer funds, and noted that “$18.9 million in benefits are tied to the creation of 1,000 jobs over the next decade.” The economy of the Bronx would also be aided by the construction workers who will build the new facility, the statement argued.