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The Editorial Board: Hotel Henry closure, decline of malls point to need to support local businesses

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Hotel Henry

The closing of the Hotel Henry, whose construction helped rescue Buffalo's Richardson complex, offers evidence of the scope of damage being done by the Covid-19 pandemic.

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The developer Douglas Jemal earned himself an abundance of goodwill on Monday by promising to make whole every couple that lost their deposit money for wedding receptions booked at the Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Center. It’s a ray of good news as the pandemic fractures any number of the economy’s components.

The hotel saved the dates, but apparently not the deposit money, when couples booked future wedding receptions there. After the hotel went out of business last week, many of the couples were told their deposit funds were gone.

Jemal, the developer from Washington, D.C., who has invested some $400 million in Buffalo projects, has expressed interest in the hotel, a star attraction on the Richardson Olmsted Campus, next to SUNY Buffalo State College. Jemal told The News on Monday he would take care of the thousands of dollars in lost wedding deposits even if he does not take control of the hotel and event venue.

It’s a generous gesture from the developer, who must like his chances to take over operations of the financially troubled hotel, which lost 75% of its projected revenue in 2020. Co-owner Dennis Murphy of INNVest Lodging Services said the venue was a victim of “the pandemic body blow to our community.” It’s a problem that echoes around the region and the country.

The hotel had earned accolades since its opening in April 2017 on the campus, an award-winning redeveloment project built with $76.5 million in funding from New York State.

Couples who lost thousands of dollars in wedding deposits told The News of their frustration in being left with nothing. The office of New York State Attorney General Letitia James said over the weekend it was investigating and urged affected wedding parties to fill out an online complaint form through its office.

It’s not clear whether the couples who lost money had any other legal remedies to pursue, but they are fortunate that Jemal stepped in. The developer has managed to keep his Buffalo projects moving forward, including Seneca One tower and Statler City in downtown Buffalo and the Boulevard Mall in Amherst, despite the Covid-19 recession that has been a fact of life for the past 11 months.

Another story in The News last week detailed the hard times being endured by shopping malls, many of which saw their businesses crater thanks to Covid-19-required restrictions on retail stores. Walden Galleria has more than 40 empty retail spaces. Boulevard and McKinley malls are losing tenants, along with Eastern Hills Mall, where the food court is no longer in session.

How do struggling businesses keep the lights on before the economy picks up across the board? Many take advantage of loan programs administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration, such as the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans. The Hotel Henry’s owners received $666,237 in PPP loans last year, helping them retain 132 jobs. But the money only goes so far while the pandemic rages on.

One positive to take from this past year is that Americans have been saving their money at a rate not seen since the mid-1970s. Consultancy Oxford Economics says that over the course of the Covid-19 crisis, U.S. households saved $1.6 trillion more than they would otherwise have done.

And with the Democratic-controlled Congress moving closer to passing President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, most individuals could receive checks of up to $1,400 by next month. That infusion of cash could help support many businesses.

For anyone fortunate enough to be economically solvent, 2021 will be a time to put money into helping their favorite businesses survive. Government checks are only “stimulus” if the recipients inject the dollars into the economy, so why not spend it here in Western New York?

This is a year for “living la vida local.”

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