8/29/2012 8:02 PM ET|
Optimism wanes in tourist town
For small business owner Marge McCuen, the smiles and laughs mask the reality that her store's register is ringing less and less.
Marge McCuen's shop on East Main is stocked with cheer: flowers, candles, garden knickknacks -- comfort food for the home.
McCuen, 69, is equally upbeat. Pushing a village walking map on a pair of young tourists one afternoon this summer, she exclaims with a laugh: "Now I want you to visit every one of these stores in town!" The tourists, two young women, laugh as well, and thank her.
Business at McCuen's little gift store, the Scented Cottage and Garden, has not been so bright, at least not the past five years or so. "That's when I should have gotten out, but I didn't," she said. "But we own the building, so it's not that easy either."
It's been this way for nearly everybody in Port Jefferson Village. At least as far as McCuen, who has been in business 26 years here, can tell; store owners don't exactly share their register receipts.
"I think everybody is just hanging in there," she said.
Port Jefferson Village itself is an affluent area. Homes sell for more than twice what they typically do elsewhere on Long Island. And many professionals here have good jobs in New York City, an hour and a half away, or at nearby hospitals and research institutions.
But store owners rely on the summer swell of tourists who arrive by ferry or car to walk the picturesque port-side streets. And fewer arrived during the recession. Even today, while many may grab a snack, they're just as likely to save their shopping for the cheaper big-box stores back home.
"We have a lot of good people that try hard to be unique, unlike, say, The Gap or Starbucks," McCuen said. "Most of these places are individuals, running their own business."
She added: "And I get people coming in all the time saying, 'Are you hiring?' I feel sorry for them, because I think right now, nothing's out there."
Although McCuen and her husband are getting by, the future feels as fragile as the knickknacks balanced on the edge of her shelves. Right now, the couple can afford a private health care plan to supplement their Medicare, but they have sizable co-payments.
If National Grid, the power plant in the village, succeeds in bowing out of its tax obligations, property taxes for everybody else in town are expected to double. That, in turn, would push down property values.
And what about her daughter, a public school teacher and mother of four? In this district, like most districts across the country, layoffs have been a regular -- and real -- threat. And a drop in income can also threaten a family's health.
"People can't afford to have health care. It's gotten that expensive for everybody," McCuen said.
McCuen may seem upbeat, but she has to wonder, if people in towns across America feel this fragile, why aren't leaders in the House and Senate doing more to help?
"If Congress is totally dysfunctional and they're not helping the people all around the country in their own districts, then they're useless. Get out of the way," she said. "If you don't want to do your job because you don't want to help the Democrats. Or the Democrats don't want to help the Republicans, then who's helping us?"
She is particularly concerned about the future well-being of average Americans -- all those who are not extremely wealthy -- should Mitt Romney be elected president. The Republican nominee has vowed to dismantle health-care reform and change Medicare.
Romney, she said, seems to be unable to connect and empathize with everyday people who have to get up and punch a time clock to pay the bills. "I don't think he understands the day-to-day existence of anyone."
Worse, he doesn't seem to care what it's like, she said.
"I haven't seen him have any empathy. I haven't seen him really understand the average person trying to hold on to a job or a home. I don't think he has any clue as to how tough it is for them to have health care," McCuen said. "I don't think he bleeds."
"If he's going to be the president of the United States, he should get to know who we are. And if he doesn't know who we are, or, worse than that, if he doesn't care who we are, we're in trouble."
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