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Queens Chronicle

Surf shop owner suffers after storm

Breezy Point man still recovering from Hurricane Sandy damage

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Posted: Thursday, October 10, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 10:51 am, Thu Oct 17, 2013.

Surfers are still plying the waves in the Rockaways nearly a year after Hurricane Sandy. But one of their favorite stores, the Breezy Point Surf Shop, is struggling to avoid a wipeout.

Almost a year ago, Hurricane Sandy destroyed the store. Owner Donald Ritter watched the storm wash away $80,000 worth of merchandise and his life savings. He did not have any flood insurance.

Breezy Point had extensive storm damage and endured a large fire that destroyed more than 100 houses. The neighborhood is located on the tip of the western end of the Rockaway Peninsula. Its location is one of the primary reasons that the area is lagging in recovery.

“It’s a self-contained community. It was built as a summer community and never was prepared to deal with this type of devastation,” said John Lepore, president of the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce. “That works against them when you’re trying to bring in heavy equipment to fix the area.”

The lack of preparedness for Hurricane Sandy is part of the reason many small businesses in Breezy Point have yet to come back.

Citywide, Hurricane Sandy affected nearly 23,000 businesses, according to the city Department of Small Business Services.

The storm knocked Ritter out of business for eight months. He reopened in a temporary trailer less than 100 yards from his store. He said the storm ruined everything inside the shop.

“I had paddle boards that were broken. They’re $800 to $1,000 a piece,” Ritter said. “I had $6,800 wholesale of sunglasses that were submerged … even water shoes got moldy right away. They’re made for the ocean.”

Ritter’s store is emblematic of the problems occurring in Breezy Point. Walking around it’s impossible not to see the empty storefronts, smudges on the windows and gutted floors of closed businesses.

The Bay House and Sugar Bowl, both staple bars in Breezy Point, also opened up this summer in temporary locations. Yet, the vibe is not the same. It’s much quieter than usual in Breezy.

More than 20 percent of businesses in the area are closed or have not made a full comeback, said Steven Greenberg, the former president of the Breezy Point Co-op. Although the percentage is high, the Federal Emergency Management Agency states that in most cases 43 percent of businesses impacted by a disaster do not reopen.

Ritter said he experienced a 6 to 10 percent growth in sales each year from 2005 to 2010. He had hoped to open up sooner. However, his lack of profitability in 2011 due to Hurricane Irene was the reason he was unable to qualify for any federal loans or grants.

“There was a small business loan that I inquired about, but I did not qualify. It was a $25,000 loan with a $10,000 grant which I would have loved,” Ritter said. “I wasn’t profitable enough so I didn’t get it.”

There are numerous federal grant programs to help small businesses get back on track, according to Meredith Weber, a spokesperson for the city Department of Small Business Services.

“We still have loan and grant money,” Weber said. “There are occasions where some small businesses just won’t qualify.”

In order to reopen, Ritter had to take out a private bank loan. He said it costs about $48,000. That doesn’t include the $30,000 in purchased merchandise.

His sales were down 90 percent in May and he projects they will be down 65 to 70 percent for the entire summer.

“I do probably 70 percent of my business in the summer,” Ritter said.

There were 2,837 single-family homes before Hurricane Sandy. Today, Greenberg estimates that there are around 900.

However, Ritter is getting a break. In the past, he was given 30 days to pay back clothing manufacturers such as Oakley and Rip Curl. Now, these companies are giving him between two and four months to pay.

Ritter has dealt with hard times before. Less than a decade ago, his partner embezzled money from their food business. Ritter lost his home and life savings.

“I was extremely depressed,“ Ritter said. “Thank God my surf shop was a separate entity, otherwise I would have lost that too.”

The Breezy Point Surf Shop is his only source of income, he says. His wife works as a speech pathologist, but Ritter says he needs to sell more merchandise in order to provide for his spouse and newborn child.

“I have to make this work. I’ve invested too many years,” he said. “People have said leave and start somewhere else. I have 22 years invested in this business. But for me to walk away with nothing, I would be a fool.”

Ritter works seven days a week. He acknowledges that the shop has an uphill battle to return to the sale numbers of previous years, but he doesn’t think that’s out of the question.

“Did I lose what took years to save? Yeah,” Ritter asked. “But I’m going to get it back better than it was.”

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