What Happened When Rockaway’s Residents Heard the Beach Would Be Closed This Summer? The Business Community United

Like many of his neighbors and fellow business owners, Babajide Alao first saw the news while scrolling social media on May 10: A popular stretch of Rockaway Beach would close to the public this summer as the US Army Corps of Engineers and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation continue the federally funded, multi-year, $336 million Atlantic Shorefront Resiliency Project. Through the building and restoration of stone groins (similar to rock jetties) in the ocean, the plan is to prevent further sand erosion linked to climate change-induced sea level rise.

The announcement, which came less than three weeks before Memorial Day–the start of peak season in the tourism-dependent corridor–rocked local morale, especially among business owners, who had hoped for a return to normalcy after two years amid the pandemic . Many area entrepreneurs, who say that city parks officials led them to believe beaches would stay open during construction, now fear that this summer’s limits to sand and water access will offer further hardship.

Less than 24 hours after The Wave, a local newspaper in Rockaway, broke the news, nearly 3,500 people signed a petition to local and federal officials for the beach to remain open and lifeguarded through the season. In a process that has confused and frustrated business owners and beach-goers, NYC Parks has already changed some dates and locations for the closures, as reflected in online updates.

“People come here for the beach,” says Alao, who along with his wife Pesy Sikyala co-owns The Cradle, a West African restaurant one block from the Atlantic Ocean. “They want to cool off in the water, relax and have a food bowl or smoothie from The Cradle. Our brick-and-mortar is right in the middle of everything, and there’s a natural flow from public transportation to and from the beach past our restaurant.” Without that, he adds, “the neighborhood isn’t as lively.”

The need for restoration is not lost on community leaders. After all, just a few days after the announcement of this year’s beach closures in Rockaway, an online video of a coastal North Carolina home floating from eroded land into the Atlantic Ocean went viral. And taking time for restoration or shoring up the nation’s coastal infrastructure is wise-particularly as it could mean staving off disaster down the road. Nationally, storms, floods, and erosion now threaten roughly $1 trillion in real estate along our coasts, according to the US government’s Climate Resilience Toolkit

But the timing of the closures is no less painful for area business owners. Here’s a brief look at how this particular community is getting through the disruption, which offers useful lessons for others facing similar issues.

Diversify Your Offerings

Alao is among business owners worldwide suddenly weighing the impacts of climate change, both immediate and long-term. He was born in Nigeria and raised mostly in the New York City region of Rockaway, Queens, where he now lives with his wife and business partner, Congolese-born Sikyala. Unlike many businesses in Rockaway, The Cradle operates year-round, but the majority of its revenue depends on summer foot traffic to and from the beach. “This was supposed to be our golden summer,” said Sikyala, “after everyone has missed out [on] so much.”

Rockaway and businesses have wanted climate resiliency measures for the decades, especially since Hurricane Sandy in 2012 devastated the 11-mile-long stretch residents, causing 44 deaths and $19 billion in damage in New York City. The ground floor of Alao’s childhood home flooded during that storm surge, when 1.5 million cubic yards of sand were displaced, largely eroding Rockaway Beach.

Even so, he knew the closures would sting. Drawing on the lessons pulled from Hurricane Sandy, Alao and Sikyala sprang into action as soon as they heard about the beach closures. They contacted a web developer to help with The Cradle’s website and search engine optimization and strategized new food delivery options within and beyond Rockaway.

Alao and Sikyala are also speeding up plans to expand indoor seating for winter, with the goal of making The Cradle more of a food and cultural destination than the beach could ever be. They are also working with local politicians to volunteer to cater more community events, donating food as they deepen engagement with West African communities throughout New York City, and raising awareness about their business with their core target market.

Lead With Your Story

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Marketing will be key for business owners like Terence Tubridy. The Rockaway native is a partner in the local Bungalow Bar and Rockaway Hotel, among other hospitality businesses in New York City. Because Bungalow Bar is on the Rockaway peninsula’s bay side, he has had to draw crowds from the beach with live music, specialty cocktails, and a festive atmosphere. Now he and his team are looking into expanding transportation options to and from their new hotel, which also has to draw year-round customers, to whatever beaches are open this summer.

“There’s a silver lining in everything,” he says. “If you feel defeated, you are. There are willing hands out there to help and promote and market your business.”

He asks: What does a day in Rockaway look like without going to the beach? “That’s a great story. People will go to wherever there’s a good story or a good product,” he says. “Look at the success of Roberta’s Pizza in Brooklyn. When it opened, that was in the middle of nowhere, but people came for the food and company, and that could happen with Seany Pizza on the boardwalk here. At the end of the day , that wins over everything else.”

Build on Existing Alliances

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Mike Reinhardt is co-owner–with fellow lifelong Rockaway resident Mike Kololyan–of Locals Surf School, Locals Collective, and as of this spring, Connolly’s Bar, Rockaway Beach’s iconic Irish pub most famous for frozen piƱa coladas. This year, based on trends in their bookings and sales, they anticipated their busiest summer ever. Every year, the duo tries to anticipate what could be the season’s biggest challenge.

“What is the fire drill that we may have to run this summer?” Reinhardt asks. “It’s really important to be nimble and able to pivot in any business environment, but especially in one where you really depend on a few months out of the year to turn a profit.”

In the years just following Hurricane Sandy, their surf school often had to change locations due to beach repairs. Through the last-minute outreach, they would instruct students to access unfamiliar beaches via subway, shuttles, and on foot. They didn’t expect such disruptions this summer, but with that experience, they made a game plan within 48 hours of learning about the latest beach closures. The current plan aims to accommodate the influx of surfers and swimmers who will crowd certain beaches this summer, adding pressure to an already lean city lifeguard programme.

“We’ve implemented new camp and surf schedules with split timing, and we’re working with everyone lesson is surf schools to make sure safe,” says Reinhardt. “We respect each other and sometimes collaborate on big charitable events, like a free surf day for kids in the community, or for people with physical disabilities. It’s in our best interest to be in ‘co-opetition,’ as it’s called, with the other schools.

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