Millions in FreshDirect government aid off the table

Thanks to a congressman’s opposition, online grocer FreshDirect might lose out on millions of dollars it sought to help pay for its move to the South Bronx from Long Island City.

A vote to approve $3.5 million in aid to the food warehouse and delivery service was taken off the agenda at the last minute during Wednesday’s New York Empowerment Zone meeting. FreshDirect is asking for a $3 million loan and a $500,000 grant by way of the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation.

Fresh Direct is moving to hte Bronx — without $3.5 million in government aid it had sought. AP Photo/Diane Bondareff

Fresh Direct is moving to hte Bronx — without $3.5 million in government aid it had sought. AP Photo/Diane Bondareff

The online grocer is poised to build new facilities at the Harlem River Yard at East 132nd Street, which the state has leased to been leased to a private company.

An $80 million subsidy from the New York City Industrial Development Agency — part of a total package of $127 million in state and city aid — was easily approved in July, with only Comptroller John Liu casting a “no” vote.

The proposed move to the Harlem River Yard in the South Bronx has met with opposition from some community residents but received backing from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation asked for the item to be removed from the agenda right before the start of the meeting, according to a state spokesman. No New Empowerment Zone meetings have been scheduled yet for 2014, and it’s unclear when there will be another vote on the matter.

A unanimous vote is required to approve the funds.

Congressman Jose Serrano, who represents the South Bronx and sits on the Empowerment Zone board, said he opposed the measure and wouldn’t vote for it, saying that FreshDirect already received enough subsidies.

“There’s no need to get more government money,” Serrano said during a phone interview on Wednesday. “What do they need this money for? There seems to be a desire to grab more and more and that’s not the way it should be.”

Serrano continued that he was under the impression that all the funding was already in place. “So why,” he said, “do they have to come to the Empowerment Zone?”

Opponents of the relocation — a community group is suing to prevent the online grocery giant from moving to the South Bronx, claiming it would add congestion to the streets and  — deemed Wednesday morning’s decision to not vote on the money a victory and a “serious setback,” while FreshDirect said it is still moving forward with the relocation.

FreshDirect, through a spokesman, declined to comment on whether the loss of funding would affect the project’s timeline.

“FreshDirect has not yet had a chance to meet with all of the board members, but we look forward to briefing them on this project,” a spokesman said, adding that FreshDirect is moving ahead with the relocation to the South Bronx.

Christina Giorgio, a staff attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which is involved in the lawsuit, praised Serrano for taking a stance. “Empowerment Zone funds are to be invested in business committed to improving the quality of life for local residents,” she said.

Bettina Damiani, Project Director of the subsidy-watchdog group Good Jobs New York, said that the disapproval from Serrano and the stalled vote highlights opposition to and problems with the plan.

“It’s a serious bump in the road for this project,” said Damiani.

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