When it comes to economic development, Westchester County is both a land of opportunity and a land of obstacles. That was the consensus business and government leaders reached at yesterday’s Business Council of Westchester breakfast event, Navigating Westchester: Threading the Needle for Economic Growth. It’s not a shocking conclusion for anyone who has paid attention to the economic development highs and lows our county has experienced since, well, forever. But the sense of optimism that pervaded was a welcome sentiment. (It remains to be seen, of course, if that optimism will turn into actual shovels in the ground and jobs on the books in coming years.)
Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino, the keynote speaker, started off with a look at Westchester’s key roadblocks to economic development: our complex tangle of local government offices (we have 45 municipalities, 47 school districts, and 212 separate tax districts, he pointed out); high taxes; arcane state laws; and excessive regulations (Astorino singled out SEQR, or State Environmental Quality Review, which he called, “totally necessary but in need of complete reform”).
These roadblocks, Astorino said, add up to endless delays for development projects: The average time to complete a development project here in the county is roughly seven years. “We measure projects in dog years here,” he joked.
But, if this has been the typical scenario in Westchester, the county is now charting a new course, Astorino said, citing changes his office has enacted, including a moratorium on new regulations, lobbying for a repeal of the workers’ compensation law known as The Scaffold Law, and work being done by the County’s Planning Department to develop uniform guidelines around development projects. “We all have a stake in trying to streamline this process,” he said.
Concurring with that cautious optimism were the morning’s panelists: Wilson Kimball, commissioner of planning and development for the City of Yonkers (and a 914INC 2014 Women in Business honoree); Harrison Mayor Ron Belmont and Bronxville Mayor Mary Marvin; Bill Mooney III, director of Westchester’s Office of Economic Development; Marsha Gordon, The Business Council’s president and CEO; and two of Westchester’s top real estate developers, Robert Weisz, chairman and CEO of RPW Group, and Tim Jones, partner and managing member of Robert Martin Group.
During a discussion moderated by Geoff Thompson, managing partner of Thompson & Bender, several themes emerged, including the need to keep and attract millennial workers; the importance of transit-oriented development (TOD) projects for awakening sleepy downtowns; and the opportunity to repurpose old and underutilized buildings, among others.
The panelists shared success stories, such as the Generation Yonkers marketing campaign. Kimball, sporting a Generation Yonkers T-shirt, said it has helped convince companies including ContraFect and Mindspark Interactive to relocate (and bring jobs) to downtown Yonkers. Other highlights were the reinvention of numerous office buildings by Weisz’s and Jones’ firms to be more attractive to today’s companies, and the many TOD projects currently in various stages of planning, including the plan to repurpose Harrison, which Mayor Belmont said will completely change the look of the town’s downtown by 2025.
Some other key takeaways from the event:
Political will is crucial. The panelists agreed that local leaders must have the political will to make tough choices on development while promoting their own communities as good places to do business. “If you have the political will, things can happen,” Kimball said, pointing to the recent plan for Simone Health Care to redevelop the historic Boyce Thompson site in Yonkers, which she said passed through the development channels quickly thanks to political will. Harrison mayor Ron Belmont also mentioned political will in highlighting the rapid (“36 months from start to finish,” Belmont said) timeframe of the Lifetime Fitness project in his town.
Politicians must be salespeople for development. “We have to be out there selling our communities, not just running them,” Bronxville Mayor Mary Marvin said. “We have to be the greatest salespeople for our communities that we can be.” Marvin said she is always selling Bronxville as a great place to “think local and shop local,” noting, “a healthy business district is directly related to home value and a healthy tax base.”
Westchester must always be in reinvention mode. The Westchester market is now “a mature market, a cash cow,” said Tim Jones of Robert Martin Group. “And what do cash cows have to do? Always be thinking about reinvention.” He pointed to the need to lure millennials to the suburbs now and keep them here as they age.
Westchester will continue to change over the next 20 years. “In 20 years, this room will look quite different, as it looks quite different today than it did 20 years ago,” said Marhsa Gordon, noting the County’s increasing diversity, a trend which she expects will continue (note, the room still looked pretty white and 50-plus). Bill Mooney predicted an increase of young talent being priced out of areas like Brooklyn and Jersey City. “Our commercial rents are half the cost of New York City and we’re less than 30 miles from Midtown,” he said. “We’re on the rise. We’re perfectly positioned to grow and thrive.”