Ordinarily, the last thing an economically struggling community would want to do is put a roadblock in front of prospective new businesses.
But in the case of corner stores in the city of Schenectady — which have been the source of problems ranging from littering to code violations to drug activity — it seems like a brief period of contemplation is needed.
City officials are increasingly concerned that some corner stores are operating as nothing more than fronts for drug activity, giving a black eye to legitimate business owners and driving away their customers. In the past two years, police have responded to 3,400 calls involving just 10 corner stores. Saturday night's shooting outside the Kris and Bella convenience store on Van Vranken Avenue — whether or not it was directly related to the store itself — does draw new attention to the need to curb unwanted activity around these establishments.
Police and code enforcement officials this month began a crackdown, issuing a few routine citations while trying to send a message that illegal activity will not be tolerated.
Owners also have been advised to stop the practices that attract illegal activity, such as selling flavored smoke wrappers and loose cigarettes, breaking large bills, allowing non-customers to use their bathrooms and phones, not chasing away loiterers who try to sell drugs to their customers, and buying items such as sneakers from individuals who then use the money for drugs. Short of not putting up "Drug Dealers Welcome" signs in their windows, many of the businesses have apparently ignored attempts to discourage unwanted activity.
So next Monday (April 28), the city will hold a public hearing on a moratorium on new corner stores while it considers a plan for how to better regulate the businesses. Among the ideas under consideration is limiting the number of corner stores that can be placed within a certain number of feet from one another. That will prevent a clustering effect of stores, discouraging drug activity in one area and helping existing similar businesses by watering down the competition for a finite pool of customers.
Mayor Gary McCarthy explained Monday that the moratorium won't just focus on the negative aspects of corner stores. He said it also will give city officials the opportunity to explore filling a need in other parts of the city for stores that sell fresh vegetables and a variety of other items like the once-popular mid-sized markets that have largely disappeared.
He hopes the moratorium gets the discussion going on all aspects of small markets in the city, the good and the bad.
A moratorium on businesses should only be used as a planning tool, not for enforcement or to sweep a problem under the rug. In this case, it's a reasonable approach because the city has tangible, pressing issues it legitimately needs time to resolve.
A brief moratorium, no more than a few months, will allow city officials the time to look at how other cities have dealt with this issue and come up with a plan. Strictly limiting the scope of the moratorium (these things have a tendency to drag on) also will send a message to existing businesses that the city is taking time to address an important issue and send a message to prospective retailers that Schenectady is still open for business.