Arts institutions and businesses across the county (like most of their counterparts nationwide) suffered greatly in 2020 due to the pandemic. State-mandated directives shuttered theaters across the county and even caused one venerated local arts business, the Westchester Broadway Theatre, to permanently close its doors in Elmsford after 46 years.
“COVID has really taken a toll on the arts community,” notes Janet Langsam, longtime CEO of ArtsWestchester, in White Plains. “Roughly 87 percent of our organizations are financially struggling.”
Langsam estimates that roughly half of her member organizations in Westchester were able to receive government assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — but smaller groups were not eligible to receive those funds. There is optimism, however, about growing and expanding audiences among some arts groups through extended digital programming, she notes.
Seth Soloway, director of the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, notes that he was “very lucky” to be part of the college during the pandemic. He was able to keep stagehands employed by fanning them out across campus, to assist in safety efforts of school facilities. As for 2021, Soloway says it is hard to predict when the Center might feature live performances again — but the first step will be to ramp up online programs to ensure that future seasons are pandemic-proof. “We’ve built something robust in terms of our online presence and need to keep building,” says Soloway. “We’re trying to see if we can build to a place where even if we can’t do a live show, we can have art being made on campus again.”
Pleasantville’s Jacob Burns Film Center closed in mid-March, and the cancellation of their film programming placed a great strain on the organization’s finances. According to Margo Amgott, the JBFC’s interim executive director, the center implemented furloughs and layoffs but took the opportunity to invest deeply in virtual programming, including hosting a virtual Westchester Jewish Film Festival and launching a new virtual curriculum for its Classroom to Screening Room program.
“We’re devastated. We’re shut down, with no open date in sight.”
—Kathleen Davisson, General Manager, White Plains Perfoming Arts Center
For 2021, the JBFC was chosen as a partner of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and will be the only satellite screening site that will screen festival films in the New York area. But the emphasis for next year will be on the safety of film buffs first. “When we reopen, we will continue to offer virtual programming, in the interest of providing our patrons with safe and enjoyable moviegoing experiences, whether in our theaters or the comfort of your own home,” explains Amgott.
As one of just two equity stages left in Westchester, the White Plains Performing Arts Center (WPPAC) faced an uncertain future entering the final month of 2020. “We’re devastated,” says its general manager, Kathleen Davisson. “We’re shut down, with no open date in sight. We have done everything we possibly can to reopen, but due to the governor’s orders, we’re just not being given the opportunity.” John Ioris, chair of the WPPAC Board of Trustees, notes that the theater cannot possibly plan to reopen in 2021 without a more concrete idea of timing, since planning productions can take months. “I’m an optimist by nature, but I’m not terribly optimistic,” says Ioris, adding that continuing to pay WPPAC staff was unsustainable due to the closure. “The staff was being paid throughout the pandemic, but at some point we will run out of money.”
Despite numerous challenges in the market due to the pandemic, commercial real estate remained stable throughout Westchester County in 2020 — and there are positive signs early in 2021. According to a Newmark Frank report, building occupancies in Westchester remained below 20% in Q3, with most companies continuing to have employees work remotely. New leasing activity hit 315,000 square feet, up 4.8% from Q2 but below the 10-year Q3 average of 450,000 square feet. The eastern I-287 corridor lost more than 677,000 square feet, while White Plains Central Business District saw a 215,890-square-foot loss. (Many of these losses were due to previously planned office vacancies, not the virus.)
According to Paul Adler, Esq., chief strategy officer at Rand Commercial, the need for large-scale space in Class A office buildings declined, as companies elected to keep their employees working remotely. But smaller, older office buildings — such as converted Victorians or medical-arts buildings — became more popular. “They were out of vogue, but COVID put them back in vogue,” Adler says. “Companies wanted a place with parking but with no elevator and no lobby, and they didn’t want a five-to 10-story building with shared HVAC.”
Adler anticipates that companies will eventually have employees return to larger office buildings but noted that some of the changes caused by the pandemic will continue to be seen in 2021 and beyond. “I don’t think if we could wave a magic wand tomorrow, we’re all going to want to go back to the office,” he says. “It’s just not happening.”
While proximity to mass transit was previously driving commercial development, the “new normal” has created other priorities. “Your connectivity and access to the internet is going to be the new transit-oriented development,” Adler notes. “If you’re up in North Salem, in a nice boutique building, and you have slow internet, you can’t compete with a more connected space in White Plains or Yonkers.”
Given the emphasis on at-home deliveries during the pandemic, the need for warehouse spaces — where small trucks can access the suburbs from a short distance — is also booming. “There’s an opportunity for the Westchester market to capitalize on that, as there’s a push to go north for bigger and bigger warehouse spaces and logistics centers,” says Thomas LaPerch, director of the commercial group for Houlihan Lawrence in Rye Brook.
“Connectivity and access to the internet is going to be the new transit-oriented development.”
—Pauk Adler, Esq., Chief Strategy Officer, Rand Commercial
Rachel Greenspan, senior director at GHP Office Realty in White Plains, pointed to the old real estate maxim of location playing an important role. “Commercial real estate performed really well in the suburbs, as we believe tenants are more comfortable commuting to suburban spaces than urban spaces,” says Greenspan. “That’s a huge benefit to being in Westchester as opposed to somewhere in Manhattan.” Greenspan adds that she believes this trend will continue in 2021 and that Westchester will see more Manhattan-based tenants relocating north as their long-term leases expire in the city.
In the retail market, RM Friedland reported that the overall asking price for retail leases remained flat from Q2 to Q3. But the end of a statewide eviction ban is anticipated to result in many more retail properties being placed on the market in 2021. “Brick-and-mortar retail continues to be challenging,” notes Sarah Jones-Maturo, president of RM Friedland. “Restaurants continue to struggle, and boutique fitness has been pretty decimated by the pandemic. But, I would consider grocer-anchored shopping centers significant winners.” As long as the state doesn’t mandate the shutdown of more types of businesses due to the pandemic in 2021, Jones-Maturo believes retail stores in these centers will continue to benefit from grocery-related foot traffic.
When Mary Stetson, broker/founder of Stetson Real Estate, in Mamaroneck, listed a home on Johnson Place in Rye prior to the pandemic, the sellers priced it at $2 million. As the coronavirus escalated locally and demand grew along with it, they decided to increase the price. “We ended up getting $2.1 million, a five percent increase, due to pandemic demand,” says Stetson.
That hasn’t been unusual in Westchester, with many Manhattanites snapping up properties in the suburbs once COVID-19 struck and buyers able to afford more because of lower interest rates. In the third quarter of 2020, 2,167 single-family homes were sold in Westchester County, up from 1,940 in Q3 2019, and the average sale price hit $1,027,010, up from $906,876 the same time the year before, according to a report from Houlihan Lawrence. Stetson found that many gravitated toward Northern Westchester during the early pandemic because prices tend to be lower. But as the year came to a close, interest in towns closer to Manhattan was building. “I think in this next year we’re going to see people gravitate back to Lower Westchester,” she says. “They know jobs are tied to New York City. Even if they don’t have to go in all the time, they have to be within striking distance of it.”
“Whether it’s a townhouse or a single-family house, [people are] looking for their own front doors.”
— Mary Stetson, Broker/Founder, Stetson Real Estate
One outgrowth of the coronavirus is that properties offering more social distancing are in greater demand. “Whether it’s a townhouse or a single-family house, [people are] looking for their own front doors,” Stetson says. And, at a time when many are working remotely and children are going to school at the dining-room table, home offices are now a strong selling point. “They want someplace they can shut a door,” she says.
Denise Friend, associate broker and regional manager of Westchester’s Howard Hanna Rand Realty offices, says one challenge in 2020 was low inventory. If the coronavirus vaccines get distributed effectively, however, and people feel more comfortable showing their homes, she anticipates that will change for 2021. “We’re hoping in the early spring we’ll see more sellers comfortable putting properties on the market,” she notes. At press time, she anticipated a large number of closings in January. “That will kick off 2021. Fourth-quarter sales increasing will lead to more closings in January,” says Friend.
Meanwhile, greater adoption of technology is likely to transform the experience of buying a home in Westchester in 2021, say local brokers. Many who had been reluctant tech adopters embraced tools like virtual tours and walk-throughs in 2020. “Finding the property is easy these days,” says Emilce Cacace, a broker at Scarsdale’s Portico Realty Group. What will make the difference going forward, she says, is “How do we hold people’s virtual hands through the whole process, fulfill their expectations, and get them what they need?”
College campuses in Westchester adjusted to pandemic-related challenges relatively well over the course of 2020, with some embracing innovations in learning and student life that will likely last for many years to come.
In October,College Magazine touted Pleasantville-based Pace University as having the fourth-best response to COVID-19 among higher educational institutions in the nation. The magazine praised the university’s impressive response plan, prorated housing and meal refunds, pass-fail grading, and random testing linked to the college’s “Pace Safe” security app. The university also launched the New York Recovery internship program, which placed and funded 65 students at 24 different nonprofit organizations conducting pandemic relief work in the region. “We helped organizations that were struggling — and some students have even secured jobs out of this, as well,” notes Pace University president Marvin Krislov. “We’ve also learned that we can do a lot remotely.”
Krislov adds that for 2021, the spring semester will likely look very similar to the fall. “It’s an uncertain situation,” he adds, with shifts that occur based on infection rates and the status of the pandemic. “But we are hoping to have more in-person activities and hoping to have athletics up and running.”
Westchester Community College benefited from its work on a five-year strategic plan that included the introduction of virtual class options. “When the pandemic struck, we moved from consideration [of virtual learning] to 100 percent deployment in just a few short weeks,” explains WCC president Belinda Miles. “We graduated more than 1,600 students last spring, exceeded our summer enrollment goals, and enrolled thousands of new students for the fall semester. While it is still early, we are seeing an increase in applications for fall 2021 admissions. We are continuing to see an increase in the number of adults who are enrolling for credit and noncredit programs.”
A surprise benefit arose at Fordham’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies: “Our summer enrollment really skyrocketed when we turned all of the courses to an online format,” says Andrea Marais, associate dean of strategic marketing and enrollment for the school. “Previously, we were not able to offer many online courses, and there were restrictions regarding the types of classes students were permitted to take in that format, but students liked the convenience of learning online during the summer. Even if things are back to ‘normal’ next summer, I expect we will have a lot more online offerings than we’ve had in years past.”
Milagros Peña, who was installed as the new president of Purchase College in October, says that a conservative perspective to the pandemic on campus has made all the difference. “Our task force took the leadership position of being very conservative in our approach,” notes Peña. “When we’ve had minimal exposures, we have instantly paused programs — and we have 100 rooms ready for quarantine and isolation. As a result, we did not have the kind of incidents like we saw across the country.”
“Virtually every single classroom on any of our campuses can serve students in multiple locations.”
—Tim Hall, President, Mercy College
Peña notes that a lot of the planning for this year at Purchase depended on the successful deployment of COVID-19 vaccines. “Around May 2021, it looks like a good number of people will have been vaccinated,” she says. “At that point, we may be talking about a following fall that will be close to normal.”
Faculty at Manhattanville College in Purchase created a free, online summer course designed for incoming first-year students. The two-credit course, which was taken by nearly 100 incoming students, covered the impact of COVID-19 on many different academic disciplines. “The course received national attention and accolades, as the approach was unique to Manhattanville,” notes Michael Geisler, Manhattanville’s president. “We plan to use this course as a model for creating similar interdisciplinary courses focusing on major topics of current interest.
“We expect that the spring semester will look similar to the fall in terms of safety precautions and protocols, and small and virtual classes and events,” he adds. “We are confident that, with [widespread distribution of] a vaccine on the horizon, we will be able to return to a more normal academic year, with the kind of personal, student-faculty interaction that is the hallmark of a small liberal-arts college in academic year 2021–2022.”
Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry welcomed its largest freshman class in many years in fall 2020, despite seeing fewer students wanting to live in dormitory housing. Mercy president Tim Hall, who has been advocating the increased use of distance-learning technology since assuming his post in 2014, was heartened to see the college fully implement the capacity for virtual classes. “Ever since I got here, I’ve been pushing to help us use distance technology so that we could do a better job of offering more of what we offer at our different campuses,” says Hall. “Now virtually every single classroom on any of our campuses can serve students in multiple locations.”
Hall adds that the effective adoption of COVID vaccine in 2021 would likely see the college resume operations to a “much more traditional way.” But he notes that the advent of online classes — which every student embraced out of necessity this year — would be a benefit for the future. “Students will see it as a reasonable supplement to their general class schedule,” he says.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act kept Westchester banks very busy in 2020. After Congress passed the massive stimulus bill in March 2020, local banks fielded a rush of applications from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provided small businesses with forgivable loans to cover payroll, and Economic Injury Disaster Loans to those hurt by the pandemic.
Community banks were on the front lines of helping small businesses make it through. The Westchester Bank, headquartered in White Plains, facilitated $85 million in PPP loans during the crisis, helping to save 7,500 jobs, notes John Tolomer, the bank’s president and CEO. “We were very involved with our customers,” Tolomer explains. “Our branch personnel continue to reach out.”
KeyBank, too, did considerable lending to small businesses, with its bankers processing 40,000 SBA and PPP loans for small businesses around the country, including Westchester. “Many of our clients have adapted very well, and some have repositioned their businesses,” says John Manginelli, market president for the Hudson Valley/Metro New York market.
At press time, KeyBank and others were helping clients prepare for forgiveness of the PPP loans. Meanwhile, bankers were keeping a close eye on the progress of the vaccines and following the potential of ongoing aid from Congress.
“What really is going to drive the whole economy is going to be the pandemic and how we fare over the next few months,” Tolomer said in late November.
Sectors that are likely to see growth in the county in 2021, say bankers, are healthcare, warehouse development for last-mile ecommerce distribution, and the grocery segment. “We envision them doing well in 2021,” says Manginelli, whose bank has been working with clients in those sectors on financing growth plans.
“Many of our clients have adapted very well, and some have repositioned their businesses.”
—John Manginelli, Market President, Hudson Valley/Metro New York Key Bank
To spur things along, Westchester County Executive George Latimer has put into motion the Westchester County Economic Development Strategy, Recovery and Implementation Plan. The initiative, which began to take shape in August 2020, is built around marketing the area as “Destination Westchester,” as well as providing programs to close the digital divide, promoting industries such as advanced manufacturing and biosciences, and spurring workforce development. “It will have a real impact on the county in a positive way, to position ourselves to be competitive,” says Bridget Gibbons, director of economic development for the county.
In the meantime, bankers will continue to work with sectors that are particularly impacted by the pandemic, like the restaurant, retail, and travel-and-leisure sectors. Some landlords were turning to banks in 2020 to seek deferrals as small-business tenants fell behind on the rent and malls were looking at adaptive re-use strategies for vacancies. “We are trying to work with many of those clients,” Manginelli says.
Another trend that is picking up is retail clients refinancing their homes. “In this low-interest-rate environment, many clients are finding it beneficial to refinance their existing mortgage debts at lower rates,” Manginelli explains.
Of course, the year 2020 also ushered in a greater acceptance of things like mobile banking, remote work, and other socially distanced ways of doing business, which bankers believe will continue because of the efficiencies these new approaches bring. “We’re very tech-focused and have made significant investments in technology in the past few years,” says Manginelli.
Matthew Wilson and his brother Mike, who run Scarsdale’s Wilson & Son Jewelers, take the long view when it comes to the business their great-grandfather launched in Washington Heights in 1905. “Our business has seen epidemics, pandemics, the Depression, and two world wars,” says Matthew. In coping with COVID-19, he adds, “we draw on that.”
That spirit of resilience has helped them through the pandemic. Even after the business had to close to its employees and the public, the brothers came in every day to work on whatever they could. Fortunately, customers were willing to order online to pick up purchases for curbside delivery, sometimes using contactless payments. “A lot of business owners panicked,” adds Matthew. “I like to think our actions helped the business move forward.”
The brothers are moving the store into a bigger space in the Harwood building this year, where the store used to be located when it first opened. “Mike and I believe in the village,” says Matthew about Scarsdale. “We believe in the economy of the town, New York State, and the U.S.”
They weren’t alone in feeling upbeat about retail in 2021. “The hope of [widespread distribution of] the [vaccines] makes me optimistic about 2021,” says Bridget Gibbons, director of economic development for Westchester County. “I do believe it’s going to be a very tough winter, with the positivity rates escalating exponentially…, but I am very optimistic about Westchester County. Our unemployment numbers have been steadily declining, which is good news.”
“Grocer-anchored shopping centers are the significant winners of the pandemic.”
—Sarah Jones-Maturo, President, RM Friedland
Giuseppe Colosimo — a vice president of the design firm CallisonRTKL, which has an office in New York City — has expertise in shopping and entertainment centers and has done work in Westchester. He believes that one big trend that could benefit retail in the county is the recent flight from big cities. “There are more people [now] in the suburbs,” he says. “Residential demand is increasing, and so is everything else that goes with it.”
To some extent, the outlook depends on the industry. “Grocer-anchored shopping centers are the significant winners of the pandemic,” says Sarah Jones-Maturo, president of commercial real estate brokerage firm RM Friedland. In Larchmont, DeCicco & Sons performed “incredibly well,” she adds. “The cotenants in the center have benefited from grocery foot traffic.”
As for larger retailers in Westchester, Patrick Tormey, adjunct professor of marketing and international business at New Rochelle’s Iona College, says megastores, like Target and Walmart, have fared well during the pandemic. He believes that midsize department retailers, like Macy’s (which recently announced the upcoming closure of its White Plains store) and Bloomingdale’s, will see challenges in getting customers into stores. “You have to worry about their differentiation,” he says.
Manufacturing firms in Westchester did not fare as poorly in 2020 as their counterparts in other industries did. While these firms represent only 3.9% of the county workforce, local manufacturers successfully weathered pandemic-related challenges — and even started new ventures in some cases.
As COVID-19 was peaking in New York this past spring, Westchester County Association (WCA) president and CEO Michael Romita called Bill Taubner, president of Ball Chain Manufacturing in Mount Vernon, to see if the company would be interested in shifting its production to help address a chronic mask shortage in local hospitals. Taubner, whose family company shifted its production during World War II to aid in construction of military airplane parts, contacted partners overseas and soon created a division of the company to start importing masks for use by local hospitals. The division eventually grew into a corporation of its own, and Bona Fide Masks is now the authorized distributor for the FDA-authorized Powecom KN95 respirator masks in North America.
“I feel pretty optimistic heading into 2021. People have become used to a new normal.”
— Don Vibbert, CEO, ImageWorks
“We were asked by local leaders to get involved,” explains Taubner. “We were hesitant at first but quickly realized the importance of helping in the right way.” The WCA recognized the contributions of Ball Chain, which is the world’s leading manufacturer of ball-chain products, with a leadership award in October.
Jennifer Monachino Lapey, general counsel at Ball Chain, explains that while its traditional business experienced a “tremendous downturn” due to the pandemic, the shift toward mask manufacturing helped, and the company expects the business to fully recover. “I can fairly say that we remain hopeful and optimistic for the coming year,” she adds.
Oliver Stauffer, CEO of Hawthorne-based PTI Inspection Systems, said the pandemic forced the company to rethink the way it works. The company — which conducts leak testing for the packaging of food, pharmaceutical products, and medical devices — created a virtual demo center for clients to replace its normal presence at trade shows. “Having a strong virtual presence, and the ability to interact with clients so that we will be able to replace the trade-show experience, is key,” notes Stauffer.
Communication was essential for Don Vibbert, CEO of ImageWorks, in Elmsford, after the virus slowed down his business. “We were constantly making adjustments and communicating with partners and suppliers,” says Vibbert, whose company provides imaging systems for medical and dental offices. “We were trying to be smart so that we had product each month. Things progressively got better. But I feel pretty optimistic heading into 2021. People have become used to a new normal.”
Bantam Tools, which moved last year into its new headquarters in Peekskill, is actually looking to expand its workforce to meet demand for its products, which help designers and engineers make aluminum parts quickly and easily. “With so many engineers and designers working from home, we’ve seen an uptick in the demand for our machines,” says CEO Bre Pettis. “In response to the pandemic, we moved our software team to work remotely, which gives us more space for our manufacturing team to spread out.”
Since Westchester emerged as an early epicenter of the coronavirus, the healthcare industry has been on the move. Now, as officials work through the rollout of vaccines, many are braced for a very busy year.
“The COVID-19 pandemic reminded us all of the importance of having quality healthcare close to home,” says Susan Fox, president and CEO of White Plains Hospital. “Our community has relied on us more than ever to keep them safe, and in 2021, our most pressing challenge will be the distribution of the approved COVID-19 vaccine.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic reminded us all of the importance of having quality healthcare close to home.”
—Susan Fox, President and CEO, White Plains Hospital
The complexities of treating COVID-19 patients are putting financial pressures on hospitals, as well, notes Josh Ratner, senior vice president for network strategy for the Westchester Medical Center Health Network. “High-acuity cases [those whose severity or complexity require more intensive care and monitoring] are complex to deal with, which often leads to higher expenses,” he says.
Many hospitals pivoted their treatment models in the pandemic and will continue to do so. NewYork-Presbyterian, for instance, embraced telehealth, investing heavily in the necessary technology, as did other healthcare organizations. “More and more of our patients are having telehealth visits with their doctors,” notes Michael Fosina, president of NewYork-Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital, one of the first hospitals to treat a COVID-19 patient. “You don’t have crowded waiting rooms. We are doing much more paperwork online.”
The hospital, which has rolled out more physicians’ offices in Westchester in recent years, plans to continue that trend. “What the pandemic has done is, we are now seeing patients in Westchester who used to work in New York City and get their healthcare in New York City. They are now working from home. They’ve switched their care to local providers,” Fosina explains.
Some healthcare organizations have planned expansions for 2021. White Plains Hospital plans to open its Center for Advanced Medicine & Surgery in June and will begin offering open-heart surgery. “Working closely with our partners at Montefiore, we will provide a comprehensive cardiac surgery program close to home for our patients in the second half of 2021,” Fox says.
Westchester Medical Center opened its Ambulatory Care Pavilion in 2019 and recently opened its Post-COVID-19 Recovery Program, aimed at helping “long-haulers” with lingering problems from COVID-19 infections. “As we look into 2021 and see COVID cases continue to rise, we believe we’re adequately prepared for it,” Ratner says.
In an interesting development on the dental front, ProHEALTH Dental opened its first WestDental office in White Plains about a year ago through a clinical affiliation with Westmed Medical Group. ProHEALTH Dental opened another WestDental practice in 2021, at the Ridge Hill shopping complex, in Yonkers. “We are actively looking at a third location, where we will operate under our affiliation with Westmed,” says CEO Norton L. Travis. Meanwhile, ProHealth Dental has signed a similar agreement with CareMount Medical. “Our mission is to break down the barrier between medicine and dentistry,” Travis says.