An aerial view of downtown White Plains, circa 2020. Photo by Adobe Stock | Drondandy
As they continue to emerge from the darkness of a two-year-long pandemic, Westchester business leaders see brighter days ahead — and are mostly optimistic about where the county is headed in 2022.
By Bill Cary & Elaine Pofeldt
– HEALTHCARE –
When COVID-19 struck Westchester County in the early months of the pandemic, local healthcare organizations went into overdrive to administer care to patients, distribute vaccines, and find ways to treat cases of long COVID. Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth) was selected by the governor at the end of 2020 to develop the vaccine distribution plan for Hudson Valley and became directly involved with the distribution of more than 2.5 million doses. “What COVID has taught us is the need to function as a tightly integrated health network is more important today,” says Josh Ratner, executive vice president/chief strategy officer for WMCHealth.
Hospitals and other healthcare facilities are now shifting their focus. “We’re seeing non-COVID patients in our ER, and our ER is filling back up again,” says Michael Fosina, president of NewYork-Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital. “We know that people delayed care.”
White Plains Hospital is working to make up for lost time, given that breast cancer screening dropped by 90% in the spring and summer of 2020; colorectal screenings dropped by about 85%; prostate cancer screenings by about 74%; and lung cancer screenings dropped by 56%. “We still have a lot of catching up to do, and, as a society, we must continue to make our health a priority and get back to our normal routines,” says Dr. Michael Palumbo, executive vice president and chief medical officer.
To combat staffing challenges and establish a talent pipeline, NewYork-Presbyterian partnered with Iona College to establish the NewYork-Presbyterian Iona School of Health Sciences, which will be located mainly at the college’s campus in Bronxville.
Development is also on the agenda for local hospitals. NewYork-Presbyterian started construction of its new labor-and-delivery suite at Lawrence Hospital in October. New office space will bring primary care doctors, OB-GYNs, and other specialists from Columbia to Larchmont in March.
In June, White Plains Hospital opened its new Center for Advanced Medicine & Surgery, which includes new operating rooms, endoscopy suites, hyperbaric chambers, and new imaging technology. Five months later, the hospital launched a new cardiac surgery program, in partnership with Montefiore, completing its first open-heart surgery. “We are just one of two facilities in the area who can do these types of advanced cardiac procedures, and in 2022, we intend to continue to grow this program to care for patients across the Hudson Valley,” says Palumbo.
“What COVID has taught us is the need to function as a tightly integrated health network is more important today.”
—Josh Ratner, VP/Chief Strategy Officer, WMCHealth
Meanwhile, WMCHealth is getting ready to launch a new five-story, 128-bed building project at its Westchester campus, in Valhalla. While this won’t increase the number of beds at the hospital, it will enable more patients to have private rooms and the hospital to flex those rooms between use as both regular rooms and ICU rooms. “This increased capacity will help ensure the entire region has ICU capacity for any future pandemic,” says Ratner.
– RESIDENTIAL REAL ESTATE –
Due to an exodus to the suburbs during the pandemic, Westchester real estate agents and homebuyers are now coping with a massive challenge: limited buying options. Single-family home inventory was down 29.4% over the last three months, with only 1.9 months of inventory available countywide, according to Berkshire Hathaway’s third-quarter residential real estate market report.
“We were dealing with low inventory before the pandemic,” says Denise Friend, director of professional development at Howard Hanna Rand Realty in White Plains. “We’re at even lower levels now.”
Despite this obstacle, single-family home sales are up in the county, with 8,473 sold to date this year, compared with 6,259 last year, according to Berkshire Hathaway. “We’re anticipating a strong spring market,” says Friend.
Average prices are also up. The average single-family home sold for $894,886 in Q3 2021, up from $866,950 during the same quarter in 2020, the report said.
Luxury homes have been in demand, with those priced over $2 million up 37.3% in Q3, compared with the same quarter last year, the report found. Scarsdale and Rye had the most luxury-home sales in the third quarter. However, the high-end market has been softening, according to Friend, and buyers are flocking to homes that are in the $1–2 million price range.
One trend that has continued since the pandemic is that homes in Northern Westchester have remained in demand, says Mary Stetson, a broker at Stetson Real Estate in Mamaroneck. “Houses that are farther away from the train station, which were out of vogue before the pandemic, are in vogue now,” says Stetson. “Now, people value having the big backyards.”
Whether that trend will continue as more companies impose back-to-office mandates remains to be seen. “We’re starting to see a trickling of a shift of concern of ‘Oh, wow, now I’ve got to travel from Yorktown to Manhattan when I thought remote work was going to be the way of the world,’” says Friend.
“We were dealing with low inventory before the pandemic. We’re at even lower levels now.”
—Denise Friend, VP/Chief Strategy Officer, Howard Hanna Rand Realty White Plains
Meanwhile, low inventory of single-family homes has been driving sales of condominiums and coops. Condo sales were up 66.8% in the third quarter, while co-op sales were up 43.5%. Those with their own front doors and that allow pets are at a premium, according to Stetson. “You will see a softening in co-op prices until those co-ops allow dogs, cats, and pets,” she says.
– RETAIL –
Slowly but surely, retail is making a comeback in Westchester County. With 67% of the state’s population fully vaccinated, restaurants are starting to fill up again, with many diners now comfortable with indoor seating. Target is moving forward on plans to open an 90,000-square-foot store at Gateway Port Chester, an outdoor shopping center, in 2022.
Meanwhile, several new developments with a retail component are in the works. They include a new plan for the White Plains Mall and a mixed-use building being erected next to the 17-story office building at 1 North Lexington, near the White Plains train station.
“More and more each day, things are going back to the way they were pre-COVID,” says Sarah Jones-Maturo, president of commercial real estate firm RM Friedland.
Meanwhile, the boutique fitness sector — dominated by studios like Orange Theory and Club Pilates before the pandemic but largely dormant during the worst of COVID-19 — is making a strong comeback. “That went away completely during COVID,” says Jones-Maturo. “Now, it’s reappeared.”
One of the latest trends in the county is the growth of golf concepts, such as golf simulators, like Golf Lounge 18 at The Westchester, now with five county locations. Jones-Maturo says there has been an uptick in interest in experiential retail, as well. Meanwhile, she notes that two of the strongest sectors in the pandemic, grocery stores and childcare facilities, have remained strong.
But the market has a way to go before it has fully recovered. Overall, the average asking price for retail in the county was flat at $37.01 per square foot in Q3; the availability of retail space dropped slightly, to 6.57% on average, according to RM Friedland’s Westchester Retail Leasing Q3 Market Report.
Many retailers in the county are still trying to recover from the pandemic, and the vacancy rate in some districts remains high. White Plains, for instance, continues to have a lot of vacancies up and down Mamaroneck Avenue, says Jones-Maturo.
“Retail is challenging. Those who made it through the pandemic are the survivors.”
—Bridget Gibbons, Director of Economic Development, Westchester County
“Landlords are continuing to work with their tenants to try to keep them alive and figure out a structure with their rent that will help their businesses succeed,” says Jones-Maturo. “Landlords don’t want vacancies.”
Meanwhile, in recent months, mom-and-pops have been contending with another challenge: the national worker shortage. “Retail is challenging,” says Bridget Gibbons, director of economic development for the county. “Those who made it through the pandemic are the survivors.”
– BANKING –
Westchester banks were on the front lines of helping businesses make it through the pandemic, as many went into overdrive to administer Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. “That was a critical lifeline for our business community,” says Gibbons. Now local lenders are helping to steer the local economy toward a recovery at a time when private sector job growth has crept up 2.6% since last year.
Community Capital, a nonprofit community-based lender serving Westchester and the Hudson Valley, has been “integral” to helping the county to administer $15 million in recovery grants to local businesses in 2020 and 2021, according to Gibbons. “They were extremely helpful and a great partner.”
As the economy slowly heals, KeyBank, which has nine locations in Westchester, has stepped up both commercial and consumer lending. “We’re growing the lending book on the pure bread and butter of what the bank does,” according to John Manginelli, KeyBank president for Hudson Valley/Metro New York.
On the commercial side, KeyBank has been doing more real estate lending and acquisition financing. “Middle-market companies are willing to expand to pursue opportunities,” says Manginelli. However, some customers are still in recovery mode. The bank deferred some commercial mortgages last year to help customers make it through the crisis. “Many have done well and kept going,” says Manginelli.
Consumer lending is also accelerating amid the housing boom. “Residential mortgages are up,” he says. “People are refinancing at a lower rate.”
At The Westchester Bank, headquartered in White Plains, commercial lending has been concentrated in the sectors that did well during the pandemic.
“Residential mortgages are up. People are refinancing at a lower rate.”
—John Manginelli, President, KeyBank Hudson Valley/Metro New York
“Loan demand has been more from the businesses that are a bit more confident about what the short-term and medium-term picture is for their businesses and where their businesses stand today,” says John Tolomer, president and CEO. “There is a greater focus on improving efficiencies for the realities of what COVID is doing, especially as the cold weather comes.”
As of December 1, Valley National Bank officially acquired The Westchester Bank. “We’ve always had sophisticated customers,” says Tolomer, who will be president of the Westchester market for Valley National. “We got to a point where additional services were really required for our client base. We determined the best course of action would be to find a good partner.”
– HIGHER EDUCATION –
Bucking national trends, many of the county’s colleges and universities are seeing a big bump in their enrollment numbers.
Fueled in part by the addition of new academic programs, as well as expanded student activities, including a new club sports program and an expanded performing-arts program, Iona College has seen new-student enrollment spike 32% in two years, according to Dr. Seamus Carey, president of the New Rochelle college.
“Our residence halls are at capacity, and campus life has returned.”
—Marvin Krislov, President, Pace University
Pace University is seeing similar growth. For the fall 2021 semester, “we welcomed the largest incoming class in over two decades and possibly in the history of the university,” says Marvin Krislov, president of Pace. “Our residence halls are at capacity, and campus life has returned.”
Pace is adding or revamping about a dozen programs, mostly at the graduate level, to reflect market needs and demands, Krislov says. These include an MS in health informatics, a PhD in school psychology, an MS in human-centered design, an MS in media and communication arts, and MS programs in both cybersecurity and data science. On its Pleasantville campus, Pace is modernizing Lienhard Hall, to turn it into a “state-of-the-art healthcare hub,” to meet the explosive demand for qualified nurses and other healthcare professionals.
Manhattanville College is also seeing big enrollment growth, particularly in the number of transfer students it is getting from other schools, says Dr. Michael Geisler, president of the Harrison college. There was a 68% jump between 2018 and the fall of 2021 in transfer student enrollment, he says, with popular majors being radiologic technology, nursing, communication studies, marketing, psychology, sport studies, and business management.
Geisler is particularly excited about the college’s Center for Design Thinking and a sports-studies program led by Professor Amy Bass, a nationally recognized author and a regular contributor to CNN, WAMC radio, and other news outlets. “Our students go on to careers in sports information, sports medicine, occupational therapy, athletic training, and broadcasting,” he says.
The big news for Iona in 2022 is its planned fall launch of new classes at the new New-York Presbyterian Iona School of Health Sciences at the former Concordia College campus in Bronxville. In the spring, Iona will open a vibrant, new, outdoor green space called “The Murphy Green” in the heart of its New Rochelle campus, where students can enjoy a variety of social, recreational, academic, and artistic activities.
– THE ARTS –
The ongoing COVID pandemic has been particularly hard on the county’s many artists and arts organizations, says Janet Langsam, the longtime CEO of ArtsWestchester in White Plains. “We have struggled through the pandemic, like everybody else. The federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) helped us enormously, but we had to lay off some staff, and we all took a 15% cut in salary. It was a struggle for a lot of our groups. I think the pandemic made people realize how important the arts are, on so many levels.”
“If anything, the past 18 months have underscored the undeniable value of the dynamic, in-person, theatrical experience.”
—Mary Jo Zeisel, Executive Director, Jacob Burns Film Center
The Performing Arts Center at Purchase College was among the many arts groups that went virtual as soon as the pandemic struck. “We moved quite robustly to provide all of the support we could virtually for our audience during the pandemic,” says Ian Driver, the interim general manager of the Performing Arts Center. For the moment, the group’s subscription series, offering tickets to performing-arts programs, is still on hold though expected to restart this year.
The Jacob Burns Film Center, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2022, will begin a major refurbishment of its three original theaters in Pleasantville this spring, according to executive director Mary Jo Ziesel. Post-pandemic, the film center reopened in May 2021 with a limited screening schedule, assigned seating, and reduced capacity, she says. “We are now back to pre-Covid operations, with proof of vaccination and masks required for entry. If anything, the past 18 months have underscored the undeniable value of the dynamic, in-person, theatrical experience.”
The Hudson River Museum in Yonkers reopened in July 2020 after shutting down in March, says director and CEO Masha Turchinsky.“We quickly pivoted to heavy virtual programming. It allowed us to work with authors and artists who were only a Zoom call away. Suddenly, we had the world at our fingertips.”
The museum is moving ahead with its $12.3 million capital campaign to build a new west wing that will double its exhibition space. Construction began in November 2020, and the new wing is slated to open in the late fall of 2022.
Meanwhile, help is on the way for county arts groups, Langsam says. “We went to our state legislators and asked for a million dollars, and they gave us a million dollars, to our surprise. We’re now pushing that money out around the county. I think things are better, but we’re not home free.”
– COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE –
Local real estate experts say that much of the county’s commercial market is poised for a strong year in 2022. “I’m bullish in a big way, extremely optimistic, says Tom LaPerch, director of Houlihan Lawrence Commercial, which is based in Rye Brook. “I think that by the end of the first quarter of 2022, we’ll see the new normal, with people back in their offices.”
LaPerch noted that the government did help the industry stay afloat and expected prices may stay cheap for a number of years. “I personally think Westchester County has done extremely well at handling the pandemic,” he says. “Class A office buildings have not really taken a big hit. They have retained most of their tenants.”
Westchester office properties had the best quarter since the beginning of 2019 in terms of the square footage of new space that was taken up by businesses, according to a Q3 2021 market report by Houlihan Lawrence Commercial.
Paul Adler, chief strategy officer at Rand Commercial, mostly agrees with LaPerch’s assessment of the market going forward. There is a real estate maxim that commercial follows residential, he notes, and 2020 and 2021 were the “hottest residential years in three, almost four decades.”
“People are now looking for mini urban villages where they can live, work, and play.”
—Paul Adler, Chief Strategy Officer, Rand Commercial
“Anything in warehouse, industrial, and flex space is going to remain hot to the touch,” Adler says. “The more modern the space, the better they will do. We’re now seeing a lot of retrofitting going on.” He added that classic office parks in the county are being reimagined, pointing to 1133 Westchester Avenue in White Plains as a good example. The complex offers a mix of office, medical, and now a new residential component. “The silo approach to zoning is outdated. People are now looking for mini urban villages where they can live, work, and play.”
The retail world is also changing, he says. Some of the retail strips along Route 119 and Tarrytown Road now have nonprofits and medical facilities as part of the mix.
“We’re now starting to see that the mall — the emblem of suburbia — is now a mix of some shopping, some hotel, some residential, some warehousing,” Adler says.
LaPerch added that e-commerce has also had some surprising effects on the local commercial real estate market. “Some of the big-box stores that went out, like Lord and Taylor, are now turning into logistics centers,” he notes.
– MANUFACTURING –
While manufacturing makes up only about 4% of the Westchester workforce, there are still a few local companies that have been quietly producing goods and materials in the county for decades. And like businesses throughout the county, the pandemic brought a host of new challenges for them.
“As we moved into the pandemic, demand diminished in all sectors,” says Bill Taubner, president of Ball Chain Manufacturing in Mount Vernon, the world’s largest manufacturer of ball-chain and related accessories. The family-owned company was founded in 1938 and now employs more than 80 people. Its many products are used in ceiling fans, toilets, handbags, key chains, curtains, and dog tags.
“I’m very optimistic about 2022. Things seem to be opening up, and people are getting their budgets back.”
—Bill Taubner, President, Ball Chain Manufacturing
“Now we’re pretty much back to normal,” Taubner says. “I’m very optimistic about 2022. Things seem to be opening up, and people are getting their budgets back.”
Fortuitously, with so many companies now facing pandemic-related supply chain issues, companies like Ball Chain maintained a large stock and inventory level. “When all of the supply chain issues hit, it turns out we had the perfect strategy in place,” says Taubner. “We’re really proud of what we do here, to say we’re made in America and to be manufacturing in Westchester County.”
Oliver Stauffer, CEO of Hawthorne-based PTI (Packaging Technologies & Inspection), said that his company, which focuses on package integrity and seal-quality assurance for the food, pharmaceutical, and medical-device industries, lost about a quarter of its normal business in 2020 because of the pandemic. “We were able to support on several Operation Warp Speed projects (the federal program that led to the COVID vaccines) to round out the year,” he says. For 2021, PTI had a slower start, with capital project teams struggling to create traction in a remote setting, but Staufffer says now the company is back to double-digit growth. He still anticipates supply-chain concerns leading into the second quarter of 2022.
Don Vibbert, CEO of Elmsford-based ImageWorks, says that the COVID lockdown has ended up having positive results for his company, which provides imaging devices and solutions for dental and medical offices. “We took the time to work on a number of strategy projects that we were always too busy to tackle,” he says. “We had two bad months, but then we slowly recovered. Each month was better than the one before it, and by Q4 of 2020, things were kind of roaring. Now, 2021 has been our best year on record.”
Vibbert says that he is optimistic for this year. “I chalk it up to some of the strategic thinking we did during COVID,” he adds.