War damages

Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkowitz discusses how city hall is helping shore up Jerusalem businesses, given the security-related dip

(from right) Ofer Berkowitz, Mayor Nir Barkat and city council member Einav Bar enjoy ice cream on Jaffa Road, in honor of Barkat’s birthday. As Berkowitz notes in the mid-October Facebook post, ‘It was also a chance to come out and support our dear businesses.’ (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
(from right) Ofer Berkowitz, Mayor Nir Barkat and city council member Einav Bar enjoy ice cream on Jaffa Road, in honor of Barkat’s birthday. As Berkowitz notes in the mid-October Facebook post, ‘It was also a chance to come out and support our dear businesses.’
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
On an early November afternoon at Zion Square, two men in their mid-30s, busy prepping their stands for the weekly city market alongside the light rail on Jaffa Road, are engaged in quite a noisy discussion, focused on the ongoing violence and the profitability of taking part in the market. One of the two, Yaniv, is trying to convince his partner to drop out of the project, basing his stance on the previous week’s income – which apparently didn’t even cover expenses.
Asked if the main problem was the weather (the heavy rain of the last few days) or the situation in general, Yaniv asserts, “The rain and the cold evenings just added to what we all understand – this is not a good time for people to hang out and look for a good bargain. I can understand them, but it’s still frightening.”
While there is no argument that the number of terrorist acts in Jerusalem has significantly dropped, the aftermath of the past two months is still very much present. According to municipality primary findings, the drop in city business has reached 70 percent – which has brought Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkowitz (Hitorerut) to declare this is “an emergency requiring emergency measures.”
Yaniv and his partner are not alone; some of the small- and medium-sized businesses in the capital – mostly bars, coffee shops, restaurants and clothing stores – are on the edge of restructuring. Some are firing their employees, others are using up their savings and some are already planning to move to Tel Aviv. As for those who can still keep their head above water: All warn they won’t be able to hold on for a long time.
Berkowitz’s city council list holds some of the portfolios that are the primary address of these businesses owners – like Einav Bar (for city center businesses) and Berkowitz himself, who besides Cultural Affairs is also in charge of the Economic Development and City Center portfolios. In a recent encounter in his Safra Square office, the deputy mayor sounds, nevertheless, optimistic.
“We are dealing with a very difficult situation, let’s face it,” Berkowitz says candidly, going on to detail the impressive list of steps already taken or still in the works with the relevant authorities – like the Economy Ministry – to provide solutions to the city business owners.
Asked what is already on the way to be implemented, Berkowitz says that trade and entertainment businesses were the first to be harmed, but adds that the situation didn’t began with the terrorist attacks of a few months ago.
Rather, he maintains, this has been the reality since last summer’s Operation Protective Edge: “Many simply haven’t recovered completely in the aftermath of last year,” when they took out loans to hold on and haven’t fully paid them back yet.
One way the municipality is helping these businesses is through an ad-hoc fund of NIS 5 million (given to Mayor Nir Barkat by a private, anonymous donor) with the support of MATI, the Jerusalem Business Development Center, which approves loans on very good terms. Berkowitz says city hall has been involved right from the beginning in this initiative, “but we need more to help maintain the level of trade and entertainment businesses we want to see here.”
He recounts that within two weeks of the first terrorist attack of this go-around, a meeting was held at the municipality to address the needs of business owners. The conclusion was that two major forms of assistance should be offered immediately: “One is working on the local-municipal track,” explains Berkowitz, noting a significant reduction in local taxes on items like signboards and outside tables and chairs at cafes.
“We also are launching a campaign to encourage residents and visitors to buy and use local businesses, including buying vouchers to be used later on by residents and tourists – who are refraining from coming now, but will come later. Meanwhile, it helps us hold on.”
These local measures perhaps help on the psychological level, admits Berkowitz, but certainly don’t fully solve the problem. Yair, a bar owner in the Mahaneh Yehuda area, says these are “peanuts” compared to the huge loss in income caused by the situation. Even the market itself is almost empty during weekdays, and “comes alive mostly towards the end of the week, for Shabbat shopping.”
Business owners in the Malha mall say their situation is a little better – “We have a sense of more security here, because the mall is guarded at its numerous entrances, but even here it’s a little lower than usual,” says Avi, manager of the Malha branch of a leading coffee-shop chain.
Thus, concedes Berkowitz, there is no doubt that much help has to come from the government, “where the big money is.” But that second track is much more difficult to obtain. All the ministers involved in Jerusalem’s affairs have been approached; first, to establish a national fund for the city’s needs in such times, based on property tax revenue, which will allocate compensation according to the loss of income suffered.
“I think that NIS 50m. to NIS 70m. will do what we need here, but that’s not a sum of money the government cannot face.”
He said the primary goal is to keep such a fund on a regular basis, “considering that such waves of terror happen again and again in Jerusalem.”
Thus far, however, the fund has not become a reality.
“Those among us who have a solid business or belong to a national chain can hold it until better days return,” details Yair. “But for the others who strive to survive all the year, these periods can be lethal for us, and we clearly need more significant support.
“If we close down, Jerusalem will regress to where we were decades ago, and nobody wants that to happen.”