SURFSIDE, Fla. — Cafe Vert, a kosher restaurant on the typically bustling Harding Avenue, was quiet during what normally would have been a lunch rush time Wednesday.
Michael Labi, who manages the restaurant owned by his family, noted how slow business had become in recent weeks since Champlain Towers South collapsed a mile away.
“I'm not going to complain about business when people have lost their lives and parents and family members, but it has been very slow,” he said, adding he knew many regular customers who lived in New York and Canada and owned homes in the area were not returning to Surfside during this time. “Even during COVID we had business, but not like this.”
Business owners along Harding Avenue have said that the collapse of the condo building nearby has taken an emotional toll on them, as many have lost friends and regular customers. Some also noted that it has created an economic ripple effect, as well.
While many rushed to provide support and aid to first responders, victims and other members of their community, they also noticed that the building collapse has brought a burdensome slowdown in business. It is akin to the economic fallout during the pandemic as customers find it difficult to travel to the area.
“The situation is very bad for us,” said Samuel Aroveno, who owns and operates Rolling-Pin Kosher Pareve Bakery. “In the last year, we saw maybe 15 businesses on the street here close. I hope we don’t see that again now.”
After the building collapse, authorities had to lock down a large perimeter to ensure that people didn’t get too close to the site. They also needed plenty of room to store emergency vehicles and construction equipment for the digging work that continues there.
“You have to maintain that perimeter for safety, but we realize it’s a double-edged sword,” said Detective Alvaro Zabaleta, a Miami-Dade Police Department public information officer. “You’re hurting people that are not directly involved with this. We get that and hope to minimize the pain.”
The closures have further slowed traffic in the area located on a narrow strip of land connected to Florida’s coast by a series of bridges and small islands, making it a challenge for customers, residents and business owners to easily reach Surfside’s downtown.
“It’s been impossible,” said Emily Wands, owner of LAHH Salon on Harding Avenue. “Customers are canceling, turning around saying, ‘I'm not coming.’”
The slowdown comes after one of the most economically devastating periods for small businesses in the nation’s history. The coronavirus pandemic brought many locally owned shops and restaurants to their knees or forced entrepreneurs to take on long-term loans to keep afloat.
Still, many businesses worked together in the aftermath to provide meals to first responders and aid for those affected by the building’s collapse.
“It’s a very small community,” Wands, who helped organize food and clothing drives, said. “Everybody knows somebody that was in that tower. Maybe not directly, but your best friend knows this person or your husband’s family knows that person. It’s been very emotional. We lost someone who has been a client of mine for five years. It’s devastating.”
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said he has been grateful for the efforts of the businesses downtown, especially as they provided help to the community while also taking a hit economically.
“On top of being shut down completely, they went out of their way to provide support for the rescue efforts,” he said. “So not only did they not have business, but they were expending funds, time and energy to support the effort. There are a lot of courageous, wonderful people in our business district.”
Another economic catastrophe
Relief for the business district, however, is not coming quickly. The summer months are an off-season for the Miami Beach area, so economic activity was already at a low point for the shops here. But the building collapse and street shutdowns have made the small bustling business district turn even quieter.
In response, the Small Business Administration and the Florida Department of Economic Activity have been on the ground to help. SBA advisers have set up a table inside Geneva Tailor, a storefront on Harding Avenue central to the town’s business district. Co-owner Ilker Cirkin said the business has taken an SBA loan to help it through the current economic turmoil.
“We try, you know, we try our best, but it’s just been very difficult, so we are waiting to hear about it,” he said, pointing at the two SBA employees working at a table by his front window.
Dane Eagle, secretary of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, said his state agency had arrived on the scene almost immediately after the building fell, bringing two mobile units to the small seaside community and offering small emergency interest-free loans. Only 11 businesses have applied for Florida’s Emergency Bridge Loan so far.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and Eagle also encouraged businesses to fill out a survey to ensure the state knew the needs of the community, and so far 50 businesses have done so.
Eagle said he had heard from businesses — his team has helped about 100 businesses and individuals so far at the scene — that have had to lay off members of their staff, and how commutes of mere minutes have extended to an hour or more, keeping customers away.
"We're hoping it's short term, but this is going to be for the foreseeable future," he said. "The need is going to be there and will continue along with the recovery efforts at the building. Therefore, there will be a displacement of the normal tourism, the normal residents that are walking about the streets."
The SBA, meanwhile, is offering low-interest loans to businesses, as well as to renters and homeowners in the area. Small businesses are offered loans of up to $2 million at 2.88 percent interest.
While the SBA reports that it has received 57 applications from businesses in Miami related to the condo collapse as of Thursday, some owners here said they weren’t interested in going further into debt.
"We just got back up on our feet from Covid and this just kind of slammed us right back down,” Wands said. “What the SBA is offering is great, but we’re still paying back loans that we got for the pandemic. We want grants, and they don’t do that.”
Still, the SBA has canvassed the local area to ensure that local businesses are aware.
“The SBA came here and offered a loan, and that’s great but we don’t want another loan,” Aroveno said. “We are almost better off closing because it’s very bad, but we want to be here to support the families and everyone downtown.”
Eagle said that his agency is working with the Miami Beacon Council, a public-private partnership aimed at developing the economy in Miami-Dade County, to find funding for grants.
"I think that's where the private sector needs to step up, which is why we made contact with the Miami Beacon Council," he said. "They're trying to look at ways to help those who are unable to take out a new loan and find them a grant that can help bridge that gap."
Burkett said he is also working with local private groups to develop potential grants and funding for those businesses that are affected, which he plans to roll out soon.
“My No. 1 priority is getting everybody out of the rubble and supporting the families," he said, "but I want to make sure our businesses and the people behind them that stepped up are thanked and know we’re grateful for everything they’ve done.”