Roosevelt Island Bank Hopes Need Help. Now, They Get Some

Roosevelt Island bank hopes need help. Amalgamated shut down in September, but November brought a boost. Will it be enough?

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island News

Roosevelt Island’s small size and relative isolation creates unique challenges. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the lack of services, especially in bank access. Now, in the wake of Amalgamated’s pulling up stakes on Main Street, Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer offers some help.

Gale Brewer
Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer at a Coler Hospital event in 2019.

Going back to the 1980s, Manufacturers Hanover offered banking at the location under Westview, but in 1992, Chemical Bank bought them out. And that was followed by Chase Manhattan in a 1996 merger.

Each time, the sign changed but local banking survived until Chase pulled up stakes. Then, after the storefront lay empty for a period of months. Amalgamated took over in 2009.

For ten years, they held on, but the closing of Goldwater Hospital, the shrinking of Coler and the reality of Main Street’s thin foot traffic proved fatal. The bank closed in September.

But after RIOC and Hudson-Related, its ineffective partner in enlivening Main Street, failed at finding a replacement, Brewer added some muscle to the effort.

A broad reach out letter nudges banks and officials…

Brewer’s November 24th letter detailing Roosevelt Island bank hopes engaged not just state bureaucrats, but also leaders in banking and credit union associates.

See a copy of her letter…

Sizing up Roosevelt Island’s situation concisely and accurately, she notes, “Although online banking and direct deposit are popular, seniors, small business owners, and residents need the financial services offered by a bricks and mortar bank.”

Showing a keen awareness of our small community among the many she serves, Brewer earns applause for accurately posting population figures: 11,661, based on the 2010 census. But with changes since then, it’s almost certainly less. (See Roosevelt Island Population: Why Not Just Tell the Truth?)

That matters, not just because she’s the first elected to accurately use the truth, but because inflated figures may have poisoned businesses in the past.

The former stationery shop empty years after Hudson-Related chased the business out. In October, 2019, Kramer told RIOC’s board they’d signed a secret tenant. The secret remains very well kept.

Roosevelt Island hopes need follow up…

A letter is no more than a start, if not followed up with engagement. Folks capable of making a difference must be brought into the conversation.

But it’s going to take more, and sources tell the Roosevelt Island Daily/News that Brewer is planning talks with banking sources. City council member Ben Kallos, who hopes to replace Brewer when she term limits out, next year, is reportedly involved.

We’ll follow up, but it’s important that residents understand the precariousness of business on Main Street. Hudson-Related stretched RIOC’s failure at supporting local business for a decade, and that’s a lesson.

Roosevelt Island’s founders never anticipated local self-sufficiency with a population in the low teens. Not especially with residents so widely dispersed away from the core. The original goal was 20,000, a population Roosevelt Island can never achieve because poor planning led to buildings that are too short to create the needed density.

Nonetheless, under budget pressures, the first Governor Cuomo, Mario. began cutting Island subsidies back in the early ’90s. Downstream, the impact still resonates in empty storefronts all along Main Street.

Is it too late for change…?

At least one local business leader approached Shelton Haynes, RIOC’s acting president/CEO, offering help but giving it straight: If Roosevelt Island bank hopes have any chance, the state needs to step up with subsidies. Banks aren’t charities, after all. But Haynes never followed up with him.

Since Hudson related launched the ill-advised Shops On Main initiative, a decade ago, its been guided by Hudson president David Kramer’s insistence that businesses must pay Manhattan level rents.

Failures have not shaken his conviction, and the results of his intransigence can be seen all along Main Street.

Brewer and/or Kallos success at fulfilling Roosevelt Island’s bank hopes depends on knocking some sense into Kramer’s and RIOC’s collective heads. But given that uninterrupted failures haven’t budget either yet, it will take more than a nudge.

Both seem content with the status quo soothed with lip service about change. Neither’s noted for flexibility or imagination.

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