CF Interviews: Roberto Ragone, Executive Director, Lower East Side BID

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rragoneChallenging economic times do one of two things to entrepreneurs: fires them up and forces them to work and think innovatively, or drags them so far down that inevitably they vanish into dust. On the Lower East Side, it’s quite clear that the former rules the roost. Since Aug. 20, “Wish You Were Here” — a program in which 30 independent boutiques trade places with London counterparts — has been up and running on Orchard Street, between Houston and Stanton.

It’s an interesting entrepreneurial idea — a way to promote multigenerational businesses on the Lower East Side as well as newer, more cutting-edge retail stores, and a way to promote the similarities between certain businesses in London and in New York.

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Roberto Ragone is the executive director of the Lower East Side BID (the acronym for Business Improvement District) and he provided some insight into how the program is going. Stateside, the program runs through Sept. 13. However, on Oct. 1, and running through Nov. 1, London — specifically the Newburgh Quarter — will play host to a variety of Lower East Side stores in what are called “Pop-Up Shops.”

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The first question is perhaps the most obvious: How did “Wish You Were Here” come together?
Well, the idea is that we know we are in an era in which the Lower East Side is evolving from the bargain district, what is what it was historically known for, into an area we’re coming to informally call “hipstoric” — this unique mix of old and new, side by side, from multigeneration stores to new and cutting-edge boutiques. Another way to put it is that it’s the classical and the contemporary, or the vintage and the vogue. As we’ve been rebranding the area, we got a call from London from a group that represents the Newburgh Quarter, which has its own history and its own people who are associated with that area. So together we synergized this idea where they would select key retailers and designers and we would select key retailers and designers and create an opportunity for each to sell and promote their wares in the other location. By the way, I think this is a very unique event. I don’t think this is happening elsewhere, or at least I don’t think any other BIDs have done this before.

Can you talk a little about how this fits in with the overall goals of the Lower East Side business community?
Sure. The Lower East Side, we feel, still needs ways to stand out. Everyone knows this is a hip area, an area where a lot of entrepreneurs have gone outside the box to come up with something new. So what an initiative like this particularly does well is it waves our hands out, it says: Look at us, we’re here, we’re new, we’re different, we’re redefined, and you need to come see us during the day. I say that because the Lower East Side is such a popular night destination for our bars and clubs and restaurants, but we also have galleries and vintage stores and customizing designers. We have a lot of designers whose work is locally produced right here within the neighborhood. For example, Robert James is a designer who is designing in the back of his store.

WYWH_largeHow were the retailers selected for the program?
We approached the retailers within the BID. I should add that we have a fiduciary responsibility to the members of the BID — they pay an assessment fee for our beautification and marketing services, so they are our priority. There were, however, some retailers outside the BID that we reached out to. What’s unique about “Wish You Were Here” is there’s no upfront cost to participate — we want no barriers to entry on the front end. In our budget, the BID assumes a lot of the costs of, for example, transporting merchandise; we’re also getting sponsors to assume some costs. For insurance and so forth, the profit margins go towards offsetting these costs — we want the retailer at least to feel like they haven’t incurred a loss from participating, and that, ideally, they’re breaking even or making a profit and/or getting the value of the full exposure.

But still, it sounds like you had to make some choices.
We had a project manager and we told them which businesses are in the BID. But frankly, lots of businesses were approached in a grassroots manner — going door to door, giving the information about the program, soliciting them to participate. Also, merchants were approached about the program via email blast. In the follow up, we did go to a lot of the merchants who’d either been actively engaged in wanting to be aware of projects we’re embarking upon or who have a track record of being proactively involved with the BID. So we did have a list of those people so that when we knew time was of the essence and we needed to get people on board, we could immediately contact merchants who’d be appreciative of this kind of initiative.

Are you using any benchmarks to measure the program’s success?
As with many of our initiatives, we’ll be going to those participating stores and asking about increases in foot traffic during the time of the campaign as well as after the campaign. What we do find in general is that retailers are reluctant to give out actual revenues or sales figures, but we’ll work as closely as we can with the participating stores to find out and to measure what the impact was. We’re also working with some NYU students on how to measure the impact of an event like this and we’re reviewing their list of recommendations.

Do you think “Wish You Were Here” will become an annual event?
It remains to be seen. You know, the point of doing an event like this for the first time is to ask a question: Does this have legs? We’ve had this kind of question on the culinary side of things: International Pickle Day. This event has been organized since 2001, when 3,000 people showed up. Now it’s grown to 18,000 people because of the way it has been marketed and because of the general public’s interest in it. So like with the pickles, we’ll certainly assess how to build on this new program as well.