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Queens Chamber survey finds cost of living hits hard

Making ends meet has climbed to the top of the worries list for both businesses and consumers in Queens, an annual survey presented at the Queens Chamber of Commerce Economic Outlook breakfast last week showed.

Speaking at the LaGuardia Airport Marriott in East Elmhurst, a panel including an economist, a developer and a city councilman found that basic economic concerns dominated the chamber’s survey of Sovereign Bank customers and Chamber of Commerce member businesses and added their own generally dim takes on the state of the economy.

The cost of living became consumers’ No. 1 challenge facing Queens in 2008, with 58 percent of respondents citing it. Last year’s top challenge was the cost of gasoline and oil, with 64 percent of respondents. Employment opportunities ranked third in 2008, with 29 percent mentioning it, compared with 17 percent in 2007.

Some 39 percent of the consumers polled said they were somewhat worse off in 2008 than one year ago, compared with 19 percent who said the same in 2007.

Among businesses in the Queens Chamber, 37 percent said the economy was in somewhat worse shape than a year ago, while 19 percent said it was doing somewhat better. Business owners also listed cost of living as their top concern, with 64 percent of residents mentioning it. Taxes came next, with 51 percent of respondents identifying it as a concern, followed by health care, with 40 percent listing it.

Benedetta LeoGrande, Sovereign’s Queens retail district market executive, said the cost of living has been hitting close to home.

“Personally, I spend Sunday morning clipping coupons,” she said.

City Comptroller William Thompson told the audience he was hearing people warning about taking steps to avoid a full−blown depression, although he expected the economy to bottom out by the end of 2009.

“In July, we believed New York City would lose 85,000 jobs over two years,” he said. “Three months later, that number was up to 65,000 to 75,000. Now we’ll have to change it again: 250,000 to 300,000 jobs. That’s how fast things change.”

Thompson did have some words of encouragement. He praised President Barack Obama’s stimulus package and emphasized the need to rebuild the city’s economy with a stronger emphasis on small business, noting the self−employed make up 17 percent of the city’s workforce.

City Councilman David Weprin (D−Hollis), chairman of the Council Finance Committee, urged people not to fear the worst, noting the city lost more jobs in the recession after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks than have been lost in the current recession.

Vincent Riso, president of the prominent residential development company Briarwood Organization, said the credit market for subsidized affordable housing may be recovering, but he warned that the ability of the government to subsidize the projects remains to be seen.

“Until yesterday, I was talking to banks and the outlook was horrible,” he said. “But I met with a major bank yesterday and they were suddenly receptive.”

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e−mail at jwalsh@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 154.

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