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October 16, 2003
Doe Fund Returns to Forest Hills

by Robert Brodsky
After a nearly six-month hiatus, the Doe Fund returned to the streets of Forest Hills this week. The program, which utilizes former homeless people with previous substance abuse problems to sweep neighborhood streets, bag litter and paint over graffiti, disappeared from Forest Hills on April 30th when area merchants and property owners failed to contribute sufficient funds to pay for the service.

However, faced with a rising tide of overflowing trash bins and clusters of garbage on sidewalks, many local merchants called for the Doe Fund's reinstatement.

After receiving commitments from more than a dozen merchants?totaling about $33,000?and a $5,000 contribution from City Councilwoman Melinda Katz, the program was scheduled to make its long-awaited return on Thursday, October 16th. Katz expects the funds to be enough to keep the program going for at least a year.

"Merchants are beginning to realize the benefits of the program," Katz said. "And, they realize keeping the streets clean is good for business."

The councilwoman will be holding a press conference on Austin Street this Friday to announce the Doe Fund's return. At the event, Katz will distribute stickers which read "I Support the Doe Fund" for participating merchants to display in the windows of their businesses.

Katz explained that it's important for constituents to know which businesses are contributing to keep the community clean. And, while she understands that the current economic climate prevents all businesses from participating, she "would like these stores to realize that it's good for the neighborhood to keep the streets clean."

Doe Fund workers will be out in Forest Hills five days a week, from Thursday through Monday. The crew will handle predominantly the same territory that it cleaned in the past, including Austin Street between Ascan Avenue and 69th Road, along Continental Avenue and down several side streets.

The Doe Fund's return was welcomed by Leslie Brown, president of the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce, which helped organize its revival. "Everyone loved the Doe Fund and thought they did a fabulous job," Brown said. "And, it's good for business to have clean streets."

The Chamber of Commerce, Brown added, also helped create the Forest Hills Community Projects Association, which allows the merchants' contribution to the Doe Fund to be tax deductible.

The Doe Fund made its first appearance in Forest Hills in November of 2000, spearheaded by a merchant's group lead by Joel Mandel of JSM Management Corp. For three years, Mandel collected funds for the program from participating businesses.

However, because of the struggling economy?in addition to the 18 percent real estate tax?fewer merchants showed a willingness to contribute to the program. In its final year, approximately 10 percent of the merchants who benefitted from the Doe Fund actually contributed to the service.

"I was unable to put in the energy to collect money for the Doe Fund year after year," Mandel said at a meeting about the program in July. "It was too much to do on a voluntary basis."

Brown adds that it was never a question of people approving of the Doe Fund's services. "It really came down to economics. It's a slow time retail-wise. But, everyone is behind the Doe Fund 100 percent."

Following the Doe Fund's suspension earlier this year, Mandel, along with Stan Markowitz, vice president of leasing at Muss Development, created a steering committee to try and establish a Business Improvement District for Austin Street.

The BID was favored among some business owners because it required mandatory assessments for participating merchants, compared to the Doe Fund, where contributions are voluntary.

For the BID to have been approved, 51 percent of the merchants within the district?which includes 73 landlords and just under 300 businesses?needed to support the program. Although there was significant support for the BID, the number proved too high and the idea was scrapped.

In the absence of either program, the normally pristine streets which line one of the borough's most upscale shopping districts began to drown in its own filth.

"It started to get very dirty," said Kathleen Histon, district manager of Community Board 6. "There were a lot of baskets with no lining and trash was beginning to overflow. And, shoppers began to notice the difference because the Doe Fund kept the area immaculate."

And, among the many problems associated with the increasing amounts of garbage in this major commercial district, Histon said many merchants began to receive hefty fines for not keeping their properties clean. Realizing what the neighborhood could become without proper maintenance, Histon said it makes sense?both economically and from a community standpoint?to make the Doe Fund a permanent fixture in Forest Hills.

"It makes good business sense to give back to the community," she said. "Clean streets bring back business. And, people shop where they feel clean and comfortable."

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