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21 Big Ideas

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We asked and in they came: a flood of emails, each with ideas from our most creative, wise, innovative residents in fields from law enforcement and politics to religion and creative arts and beyond. The assignment? Give us your best idea for making this great county even greater. Our Golden Apple, as beautiful as it is, needs a good polishing now and again.

[1] Reward Volunteers

On the Monday that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I took my then 18-month-old to the zoo. He had fallen asleep, as all good toddlers do, just as we arrived, so I parked the car and settled in to call my mother while he napped. Momma lives between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, a compromise to us growing up in the state’s capital and our New Orleans relatives.

At that point, the city had escaped. I remember the relief in Momma’s voice as she told me. Once more, New Orleans’s protective voodoo had held. It was okay.

But, of course, it wasn’t.

The next night, as I rocked my son to sleep, I couldn’t stop thinking about New Orleans, particularly the mothers and children stuck there. As difficult as it was to get my son asleep, and stay asleep, I had every comfort and advantage to make that happen. Those women had none—and worse, no idea if or when they would again.

I did what so many of us did. I cried. I sent money. I prayed.

But the disaster didn’t move on for me. It stayed stuck inside, right about at my collarbone. I had never felt so useless about something that mattered so much.

A few months later, I was driving down Broadway in Irvington, and saw a sign that read, “Abbott House.” It could have been another historical landmark or catering hall, but I went home, looked it up, and found it was what I had thought: a foster home.

At this point, it isn’t difficult to guess what follows. I started working with the boys there through an outreach writing program I began in Los Angeles for at-risk youth. Tragedy occurs; hand-wringing ensues; member of privileged community assuages guilt. But a while ago, I realized it wasn’t just guilt I was assuaging. In the years since bringing the writing program to schools here for foster care, developmentally disabled, or seriously ill children, what has opened up for me is a sense of belonging and connectedness that I never felt before, no matter how many times I went to the same playground. I have found that by involving myself in the lives of people who otherwise would remain invisible to me, I have an appreciation for the true and varied colors of Westchester, and connections with other volunteers that give my life a breadth and width it couldn’t have had before.

I grew up watching Momma teach writing for free at Angola, Louisiana’s penitentiary, and start Baton Rouge’s arts festival, among other things. I knew it was the “right” thing to do. What I didn’t know was what she got back: a deep sense of community, and a good night’s sleep.
/// DeLauné Michel, Producer Spoken Interludes (spokeninterludes.com)

[2] Connect Westchester East-West

We need a modern, state-of-the-art, east-west transit system that will make it easy for all our citizens—commuters, senior citizens, and youth—to travel seamlessly from Suffern to Port Chester and points between, and ultimately link Stamford to Stewart Airport and beyond.

This new east-west modality will connect the five north-south rail lines between the Hudson Valley and New York City, and boast the newest technologies for scheduling, payment, and customer service, enticing us all to leave our cars at home and traverse the county with great ease.

Of course, the crown jewel of this project will be a new Tappan Zee Bridge—an impressive landmark for the Hudson Valley and a statement to the world. The need is apparent, the benefits clear, and the plans exist; it’s time to turn our vision into reality.
/// Marsha Gordon, President/CEO The Business Council of Westchester

[3] Turn Playland into Artland

I’m just a kid from the Rockaways, so when someone says “Playland,” the teenager in me remembers the Atom Smasher at Rockaway Playland, opened in 1901 and closed forever in 1982. Rockaway Playland, alas, has been replaced by a housing development…nondescript, unmemorable, and certainly not fun. You will, therefore, understand how hard it is for me to let go of Rye Playland. So what if we could reimagine Playland as our county executive has invited us to do? Could it be more artsy, more fun, more relevant…yet still a place to play and still all about “good times for families?”

According to a National Arts Index developed by Americans for the Arts, more people than ever are participating in the arts. That’s why I imagine Rye Playland as an art park. There are many models from which to draw. Artpark in Lewiston, New York, is a unique public park, run by a not-for-profit organization as a place and a space for art, offering Broadway musicals, swing band concerts, high-tech video, low-tech art camps for youth, and family programs on weekends. A different kind of art park is Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, New York, where sculptors create and exhibit monumental works in what has become an internationally known outdoor museum.

Then of course, there’s the heritage thing. Many art parks are built around historic themes, using the arts to interpret history. Rye Playland has a compelling history. Could its arts deco buildings still evoke that era of fun that we imagine people had in 1928 when Playland opened to the public? Could we bring back to Rye Playland the sass of the Peabody and the Charleston? Wouldn’t dancing there be fun? Recalling the Ice Capades, I wonder if an ice show could fit into the ice rink? What about Shakespeare in the Park? Circus arts?

Then my thoughts turned to the recently reinvented former military base, Governor’s Island. It isn’t called an art park, but its brilliant merging of arts and the environment are luring thousands to its shores. Rye Playland has all the right stuff—water, beach, nature, boardwalk, ferries, parking, salt air, historic buildings, a soon-to-be children’s museum, an ice rink, fireworks. With imagination, it can be a creative adventure place for parents, grandparents, children, and all of us other kids.
/// Janet Langsam, CEO/Executive Director, ArtsWestchester

[4] Ensure No One Goes Hungry

Having been an avid supporter of The Food Bank for Westchester (FBW) for more than 15 years, I am fully aware of how many Westchester residents—especially children and seniors—rely on FBW for their meals.

Wouldn’t Westchester be an even better place if all restaurants, supermarkets, country clubs, hotels, bakeries, caterers, etc., all worked with FBW to help feed our hungry neighbors? It is so easy. All they’d have to do is donate leftovers, excess food items, or specially prepared meals. If they aided in educating children and adults in how to eat properly and prepare nutritious meals, just think of how many more full, happy, and healthy tummies there would be!
/// Alison Awerbuch, Partner, Abigail Kirsch Catering & Events at Tappan Hill Mansion in Tarrytown

[5] Give Voters More to Vote On

We can make the county even better by providing voters with the ability to partner in the decision-making processes of government. The taxpayers of Westchester should be able to decide how much or how little government we want and can afford. Taxpayers already can vote on school budgets—why not on the state, county, or local budgets? If the voters are given the chance to have a real say in the process—and to vote for or against budgets and for initiatives we believe in, our electorate will be better informed. There will be more discussions of options and greater participation. This is what democracy should be all about.
/// Paul Feiner Greenburgh Town Supervisor

 

[6] Keep Parks Open and Bad News Out

Westchester County is no dog. We’re the seventh richest county in the whole U.S. of A. Wikipedia says we were the first suburb in the world. What is a suburb, exactly? Not city. Not country, either. We have the flavor of both and of neither: we’re a magnificent blend, like gin and vermouth. We’ve got the Hudson River on one side, the Long Island Sound on the other. Houses in the middle. Houses with yards. Yards to raise dogs in. But more about dogs later.

A tiny idea that would make a gigantic difference? Well then, let’s have better people in Westchester County—a brilliant plan and frugal as well. Kind, thoughtful people don’t cost any more than the nasty ones. They may cost less. Can you feel the value of your property rising? Can you feel it now?

How do we decide who’s better? Russian novelist and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between parties either—but right through the human heart.”

Okay, but then aren’t happy people more apt to be good? I’ve got a novel idea. Let’s make life better for the ones we have.

The first step—obviously—is to outlaw television news and jam talk radio. I’d suggest we also have our newspapers censored. Three positive stories for every negative one.

I always feel better, more generous, when I’ve been outside. So let’s not close the parks. Or even delay their opening.

People are followers. They need to have examples of kindness around, avatars of loyalty and joy to look up to. Good behavior needs to be modeled for us. Which is why we need more dogs in public. Which is why I was upset when the Health Department ruled that you couldn’t bring your Labrador retriever to Coffee Labs Roasters in Tarrytown.

I suppose that part of the problem is that not all dogs are trained. Which is mysterious to me. Because dog-training looks so simple, and yet it is so rare. At-risk kids in Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry train dogs. Lu and Dale Picard of East Coast Assistance Dogs set up the program that trains the kids who train the dogs there and at other schools in Westchester. With 82 commands on board, the dogs are placed with the disabled. Many go to veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Now that’s the sort of article I’d put in our special for-Westchester-only newspaper. A story to make us feel better, make us act better. And if that doesn’t work, then there’s always the martini.
/// Ben Cheever, Author, Pleasantville

[7] Keep Our Young Here

While we invest more than $20,000 per high school student in Westchester, our investment is leaving the county and creating value for someone else. An effort must be made to encourage our high school graduates to return to Westchester as they start their careers. Obviously, that begins with attracting companies to Westchester and encouraging them to hire a young workforce through tax credits or abatements. There are many subsidy programs available, and if we focused some of them on this highly educated group of employees, it would increase the tax base. 

We also have to make it affordable for these graduates to either own or rent in the county. Many students take lower-salaried jobs elsewhere, and come out ahead because of the lower cost of living. My plan would be to incorporate some of the same initiatives enacted for low-income housing but focus the resources on housing for recent college graduates with jobs or job offers. 

This would give Westchester an advantage in competition for commuters with the five boroughs, Long Island, Rockland, Fairfield, and North Jersey. It would also keep those young entrepreneurs who create jobs in the county.
/// Anthony Maucieri, Owner East Hill Cabinetry, Briarcliff Manor

[8] Nourish Our Children

What should we change about Westchester? We should do what no other county in the United States has done: we should work together to ensure that every K to 5 student in every school in our county gets a fresh, healthy, and nutritious lunch every day during their critical formative years.

There are 70,000 schoolchildren in grades K to 5 in Westchester. Each year, we spend nearly $16 million on childhood nutrition. But spending $1.27 per student per day is not enough—too often it results in fast, frozen, highly processed meals. There are better, healthier options that would nourish our children, support our local economies, and teach our students about the importance of good environmental stewardship. I’m inspired by organizations like Slow Food (slowfoodusa.org) and Edible Schoolyard (edibleschoolyard.org), as they advocate to reform school lunch policy and challenge communities to rally for change. Sure, these alternatives cost a bit more, but aren’t our children worth it? Isn’t two, three, four, or even five dollars a day reasonable for a healthy lunch as an investment in our children’s health and our collective future?

Some people think kids don’t like to eat their veggies, but at Stone Barns Center, we’ve found that when children are involved in planting, harvesting, and cooking, they become much more willing to try new foods. So we also should work to ensure that every child has access to a farm or a community or schoolyard garden that educates them about where our food comes from and creates more adventurous eaters. We should give our children the kind of inspiring place-based experiences that will foster their long-term commitment to stewarding the land and waters we need to survive. Let’s help support change by working from the ground up.
/// Jill Isenbarger, Executive Director, Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, Pocantico Hills

[9] Support Our Libraries

As economic hardships continue to press upon Westchester’s citizens, more and more have turned to their local libraries for help. Libraries are a great investment for every community, yet state aid to libraries represents less than one-tenth of one percent of the state budget. There are free library programs to help find jobs, learn new skills, improve business operations, manage health care expenses, and more. If you don’t already have a library card, there’s never been a better time to get one. If you do, take advantage of the vast free resources available to you and encourage others to do the same. Support your local library and become an advocate by contacting your local and state officials to let them know how crucial it is to keep library funding intact.
/// Terry Kirchner, Executive Director Westchester Library System

 

[10] Use the River

One way to make Westchester an even better place to live would be for everyone who hasn’t been out on the Hudson recently to get out and enjoy it—it’s never been easier. Kayak, swim, boat, and lie in the park. And, after you get down to the river, find one thing you can do to help keep it clean, which is the key to everything good that the river has to offer us.
/// Paul Gallay, Executive Director and Hudson Riverkeeper, Riverkeeper

[11] Make Our Streets Bicycle- Friendly

While Westchester County has a world-class system of parks and recreational trails, when it comes to safe roadways and enough adequate sidewalks for bicyclists and walkers, we are lacking. Study after study show that communities that are bicycle-friendly or have higher walk scores (walkscore.com) have comparatively higher property values and better price appreciation for their homes. So whether it allows your child or aging parent to go places safely and independently (and increase their health) or if you simply care about increasing or maintaining the value of your home, safer cycling and walking facilities are a win-win for all residents in Westchester County.
/// Michael Oliva, Co-founder, Bike Walk Alliance of Westchester & Putnam

[12] Reduce Chronic Truancy

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” If we want to make Westchester an even better place to live and work, we need to do a better job building our youth. High school graduation rates in the U.S. are poor in comparison to other developed nations, with only a 68.8-percent nationwide graduation rate. In New York State, the numbers are worse: 64 percent. Even more disturbing are the racial, ethnic, and gender gaps in graduation rates. One report found that only 25 percent of African American male students graduated with the college preparatory Regents’ diploma in New York State in 2007 to 2008. We can do better.

Keeping kids in school keeps them on track to become successful adults. Chronic truancy is linked to gang activity; use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs; and other risky behaviors. When Yonkers studied this issue, it found that students with 20 or more unexcused absences in grades seven to eight had a 21 percent greater chance of being arrested within three years. As Westchester’s chief law enforcement officer, I know that reducing juvenile crime enhances public safety.

Our schools no longer have truant officers. My office has been working with the Mount Vernon and Yonkers public schools, local police, courts, and the Department of Social Services to identify chronic truants and get them back to school. By looking closely at the reasons for absences, schools can offer families the support necessary to keep their children in school. During the first year that Yonkers introduced its truancy reduction program, the number of chronically truant students in grades one to eight dropped by 18 percent.

While we look first to families to ensure that their children are in school every day working toward success, we, as a community, ultimately share this responsibility.
/// Janet DiFiore, Westchester County District Attorney

[13] Give Businesses Tax Credits

Westchester County is a fantastic place to live and work. It is, however, a very expensive place to do both. What we need is to create an atmosphere where businesses receive incentives to open, which, in turn, will help relieve the exorbitant tax burden our citizens are carrying.
Tax incentives are the best way to solve the problem. If businesses have incentives to hire by allowing for tax credits, they will be able to better afford additional manpower at their companies. More man-power equals more production. If production leads to additional profit, companies can hire more employees, or use the profit to spend in the local economy.
/// Tony Lembeck, CEO, NAI Friedland Commercial Real Estate Yonkers/Manhattan

[14] Begin a Candid Discussion on Race, Class

Our county is currently faced with a $50 million Federal Housing Settlement that demands that the richest and whitest towns of Westchester (24 were identified) build 750 units of affordable housing for minority buyers. Whether people like the federal government’s directive or not, let’s seize this opportunity to begin a candid conversation about race and class in our communities. Having resided here my entire life, splitting it happily and evenly between a Southern Westchester childhood and a Northern Westchester adulthood, I know that the issues of race and class can often impact many of our decisions about where we choose to live, where we send our kids to school, where we dine, shop, and even where we choose to picnic, swim, and spend our leisure time. Studies have proven this, but few of us will admit to it.

Race and class no longer need to be the big elephants in the room. As legislators, land-use experts, and the media examine housing locations, environmental-impact statements, and determine the space, environmental, and infrastructure challenges in these 24 towns, the rest of us should use this time to come together around race and class, and give each other permission to share our opinions, our fears, our dreams, and our aspirations for an open-minded Westchester.
/// Lawrence Otis Graham, Author Attorney at Cuddy & Feder, White Plains

[15] Make More Money Available to Small Businesses

The best thing we can do to help make Westchester an even greater place to live, work, and do business in is provide more support for the small businesses that are creating jobs and bringing new and innovative products and services to market. This past September, Congress passed legislation I introduced raising the maximum amount that small businesses may borrow to expand by investing in new equipment and inventory. This is critical for businesses in our high-cost region, especially as it remains difficult to obtain lines of credit from many banks. Helping small businesses invest and expand will help create jobs, grow our local economy, and make more and better products and services available to consumers.
/// Congresswoman Nita Lowey Representative for New York’s 18th District, Harrison

[16] Increase Access To Fresh, Local Food

It would be hard to imagine that anyone would disagree with the premise that we’d all like to have access to and eat fresh, local, healthy food.

Sure, we might have a hankering for chocolate bars and the exotics and even junk food now and then, but in our hearts, heads, and stomachs, there is a broad consensus (and data to back it up) that eating local and having access to fresh food is a good thing.

Unfortunately, equal access to such food is not a reality for many in the county. Local, organic food is not widely available. One has to seek out farmers’ markets, which are open on a limited basis (generally once a week) and for only part of the year. That which is available can be expensive (not surprising given the cost of land, labor, and supplies). To top it off, the growing season in our region is limited, making year round access to fresh, local food tricky.

I believe the issue has the potential to unify an otherwise fragmented county. It cuts across demo-
graphics, economics, and social structures. We don’t have to wait for national reforms to the Farm Bill or for local municipal budgets to be passed before acting. We can create a public/private response to the issue. We need a centralized group to help broker, coordinate, and facilitate the effort. Here are my suggestions:

 Create more community gardens. Utilize parkland—there are ways to get around public access constraints (e.g., Rockland County model Cropsey Farm).
 Construct incentives for landowners to lease unused land.
 Support Hilltop Hanover Farm in Yorktown Heights, a magnificent county resource whose current under-productivity and cost is negatively catching the attention of legislators.
 Allow those without financial resources to work to earn produce as their wage.
 Let farmers pay land rent in produce.
 Allocate affordable housing so farm help can live in proximity to their land.
 Facilitate more markets in more communities.
 Nurseries, farmers, and Cornell Cooperative (to name only a few) can help teach growing skills.
 Utilize the county’s talented chefs to teach young and old about cooking/buying/storing/preserving.
 Food festivals could highlight the diversity of cuisines and bridge communities.
/// Lisa Schwartz, Founder and Proprietor Rainbeau Ridge, Bedford Hills

[17] “Green” Our Schools

We adults are not willing to face the messes we’ve made. It borders on criminal to continue to ignore the fact that we’re living unsustainable lifestyles. We don’t need more stuff to make us happy. What we need is to establish connections—to each other, to the land and the food that comes from the land, to our water sources, and to the very air we need to take the next breath. The place to start this is in
our schools.

The many efforts to “green” our schools are, unfortunately, often scattershot. Studies show that everything gets better when we look at our schools in a holistic way—meaning all parts individually and then as they each affect one another—and weave cross-curricular lessons with experiential learning. This is being done but only in pockets. Why not take the lead? Make Westchester County the place where we put our kids first, where we take on today’s challenges together.
/// Jayni Chase, Founder Green Community Schools Bedford

[18] Embrace Diversity

One of the characteristics of Westchester that we celebrate is its diversity. A look at U.S. Census Bureau population projections indicates that more diversity is coming. There will be 100 million more people by 2039, among them more people of different races, national origins, and household compositions. This is an opportunity to be embraced.

While many Westchester towns, villages, and cities have outpaced the nation in adopting inclusionary housing ordinances and providing affordable housing, the county settled a lawsuit brought by plaintiffs who claimed that in some communities, neighborhoods are too homogeneous. Westchester agreed to work to build affordable housing.

The world is becoming more complex and is challenging us to learn to share ideas and values in much more civil and productive ways. There is a saying in Spanish, “Mar tranquillo hace mal marino,” which, loosely translated, means “A calm sea makes for bad sailors.” Our waters have been disturbed by fierce weather, frequent flooding, a tough economy, and now desegregation. My hope is that most of us are secure enough in this great county to navigate the journey ahead with grace, an open mind, and confidence in our ability to solve the toughest problems.
/// John R. Nolon, James D. Hopkins Professor of Law Counsel
Land Use Law Center, Pace University School of Law, White Plains

[19] Make Community Contributions

When we use the word “wealth” today, we generally mean riches or material possessions. However, the word “wealth” originally referred to someone’s welfare, their good and happiness.

Here in Westchester, we boast one of the toughest-chugging and prosperous workforces in the nation. But imagine our county’s people suddenly, wholeheartedly unselfish—no longer catering to the trinity of Me, Myself, and I, but hustling and bustling to seek the wealth (the welfare, good, and happiness) of others.

David Packard, co-creator of the Hewlett-Packard Company, once said, “Many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being.” John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who is buried in Sleepy Hollow, was quoted as saying: “The poorest man I know is the man who has nothing but money.”

There’s a legend that years ago in London, the Salvation Army held its annual convention in a large auditorium. General Booth, the Army’s founder, could not attend the convention due to poor health but agreed to send a message in his absence. The moderator began the meeting and announced: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I regret to inform you that our leader and founder General Booth is for the first time unable to attend. He has, however, agreed to send a message to be read at this time, as follows: ‘Dear Delegates of the Salvation Army Convention: Others. Signed, General Booth.’”

If wealth is your guiding star, then you’ll strut like a peacock when it feels like you’ve got the world on a string or jump out of a high window when you lose it all. Money is a vital variable in your life’s equation but not your ultimate bottom line. Great men and women who not only rise to the top of their fields but make enduring community contributions are always people with a nobler mission because money is neither the journey nor the destination—it simply funds the mission and makes it possible to love, serve, and care for as many people as possible as we go.

Ask yourself: How can I gain great wealth (not personal affluence, but good, betterment, well being, and happiness) for my family, workplace, school, neighborhood, house of worship, and community?
/// Rocco Dapice, Husband, Dad, and Pastor of People’s Church, Tarrytown

[20] Form a Sustainability Master Plan

Maybe there’s never a good time to spend money, but our nation became great by standing up for important causes and leading during adverse times. We must continue to lead. It is time to act on the most important cause facing our communities—creating an environment that is sustainable for us and future generations.

Every village and town should take stock of their public buildings, evaluate the costs of preserving and maintaining the value of their real estate, inventory their physical facilities and infrastructure and analyze their energy consumption. The data gathered can form the basis for a Countywide Sustainability Master Plan, a shared tool for intelligently preserving and improving our county’s public facilities and the character of our communities while lowering our carbon footprint.

I want my great-grandchildren to enjoy the same visually rich environment and character that Westchester residents cherish. Through our public architecture, Westchester’s towns and villages can collectively lead the way to a sustainable future, provide a model for other municipalities, and preserve the quality of the environment and setting we all cherish.
/// Erik Kaeyer, Vice President KG&D Architects, Mount Kisco

[21] Revitalize Our Downtowns

When vibrant, our downtowns and Main Streets enhance the social character and quality of life that makes living in Westchester County so
attractive. In addition, vibrant downtowns contribute significantly to Westchester’s economy and employment base. However, their vibrancy is increasingly being challenged, not only by today’s Great Recession, but by dramatic changes in spending habits, land-use patterns, administrative codes, and transportation.

Our downtowns largely comprise small businesses. These mom-and-pop businesses are the lifeblood of our county’s small business community, creating local jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities. It has been documented that Main Street expenditures have a significantly greater ripple effect within the community than national stores. Furthermore, downtown buildings and infrastructure represent billions of dollars of investment that would be impossible to recreate if lost. Finally, when we lose our Main Streets, we also lose a part of our history.

Today, revitalizing and managing a downtown requires access to expertise beyond most local organizations, business owners, and residents. Communities need access to specialized expertise in marketing, development, transportation, building codes, design, finance, legal issues, and market assessments to help arrive at informed plans for action. If Westchester County could organize teams of professionals to consult with downtowns where there is community commitment and effective local organizations, they could significantly empower these local efforts.
/// Ralph DiBart, Executive  Director, New Rochelle Business Improvement District

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