Telegraph Area Businesses Hit Hard Financially

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Businesses on Telegraph Avenue may have been hit extra hard in light of the economic downturn as problems considered more inherent to the area - such as disturbances sometimes caused by a few homeless individuals on the avenue - may have also contributed to drops in sales experienced by some business owners.

While the economy's recent dive has taken a toll on almost all businesses in Berkeley, owners on Telegraph say they may be dealing with a bit more of a financial impact as potential customers are sometimes discouraged from shopping on the avenue and pushed out of the area by a regular contingent of drifters who loiter in front of stores and "don't respect the street or ... businesses," according to Marc Weinstein, co-owner of Amoeba Music.

The businesses may be hurt by negative perceptions of the area established over the years and partially rooted in the actions of these homeless individuals on the street, leading many business owners to feel "neglected" by the city and community, Weinstein said.

"The avenue is suffering from perception more than reality," he said. "There are still so many great businesses there, and it's probably the best people-watching area in the country."

Weinstein added that of his three Amoeba Music stores - in Hollywood, San Francisco and Berkeley - the 20-year-old Telegraph location has taken the biggest financial decline in revenue at 50 percent over the past five years, while the San Francisco store has dropped 15 percent and the Hollywood store 5 percent.

"That number corresponds with the whole avenue," he said.

Shawn Misaghi, owner of Telegraph Flowers - across the street from Amoeba - said that the homeless "regulars" on Telegraph are a positive part of the community, and it is only the homeless individuals coming in from outside the city that are negatively impacting business on the avenue.

Though business owners said they have not seen much of a response from the city to address these concerns, the city manager's office started the Berkeley Host Ambassador program in 2008, in which city employees maintain a visible presence on Telegraph Avenue and in Downtown Berkeley to report problematic vacancies to the city, assist tourists, resolve disputes and help homeless individuals with drug or mental health issues enter recovery programs - generally acting as the "eyes and ears" for the city, according to Jim Hynes, assistant to the city manager.

The program is funded by the city and overseen by the Downtown Berkeley Association and the Telegraph Business Improvement District. Graduates of the Options Recovery Services program in Berkeley act as the Telegraph ambassadors and have initiated 12 referrals of homeless individuals to Options Recovery Services since 2008.

"(The business committees) report that the host ambassadors have been a very effective tool in deterring crime and problem-solving in the districts," said Michael Caplan, the city's economic development manager.

Hynes said the program is part of a city team that has worked to improve the homeless situation in the Telegraph area specifically.

"(Program employees) play a unique function but complement very well with our other staff," he said. "Before, we had a lot more problems with people sleeping in doorways and those kinds of things."

But business owners on the avenue said that while the program has been helpful, it still is not enough. Many said foot police on Telegraph, which the avenue had in past years, would drastically improve the avenue's safety while decreasing problematic behavior.

"For 20 years we've been asking for things like better street lighting so people can feel safe when they walk down the street," Weinstein said. "With a little tiny bit of support from the city, the avenue could be so much better, but they really do seem to be ignoring us."


Hailey Parish covers local business. Contact her at [email protected]

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