Friday, January 06, 2006

The Empire Zone Strikes Back

Western Nassau Becomes Frontier For County's First "Empire Zone"

Since his election as County Executive back in 2001, Nassau's Tom Suozzi has been lobbying Albany for the creation of a so-called "Empire Zone" -- a necessary economic stimulus, and central to the redevelopment of the "Main Streets" and "downtowns" from which spring our suburban bedroom communities. Indeed, the County Executive, through the County's Economic Development Office, was instrumental in steering the application for the creation of Nassau's Empire Zone to the State Capitol.

Souzzi, together with the State Senate's Deputy Majority Leader, Dean Skelos, Assemblyman Tom Alfano, and others comprising Nassau's legislative delegation (notably, Assemblymembers Bob Barra, Robert Walker, Joseph Saladino, Dave McDonough, Tom DiNapoli, Charles Lavine, Earlene Hooper and Harvey Weisenberg, and Senators Charles Fuschillo, Kemp Hannon, Carl Marcellino and Michael Balboni), apparently held considerable sway, moving the measure through the hallowed halls of State power, as Governor George Pataki announced the creation of the County's very first Empire Zone.

Empire Zones are targeted economic development tools to help areas struggling to create and expand jobs while promoting commercial businesses. In many communities economic development if stifled by bureaucracy, the cost of doing business, brownfields and land use management problems. Empire Zones remove barriers and obstacles to these challenges in communities. The Empire Zone legislation, enacted last year, focuses the program on target areas in an effort to promote economic revitalization while providing great flexibility to attract, retain or expand existing business.

The boundaries of the new Nassau zone, according to a report in Newsday [SEE Nassau Gets Its 1st Tax-Free Empire Zone], will straddle the towns of Hempstead, North Hempstead and Oyster Bay. The targeted communities include Bethpage - at the site of a defunct plant once run by Grumman - Glen Cove, Elmont, North Valley Stream, Inwood, New Cassel, Roosevelt, Uniondale, West Hempstead and the villages of Freeport and Hempstead.

Empire Zones offer tax credits, real property tax credits, sales tax exemptions, wage credits, and utility rate reductions. Such zones are intended to attract high tech/high skilled jobs through business cluster of biotechnology, software and technology development, service providers, banking and finance, healthcare and entertainment venues, bolstering the local economy.

In other parts of the State, some 9,500 businesses have been established employing over 300,000 people, all as a result of Empire Zone programs.

Senator Skelos told Newsday, "It means in many economically depressed communities the opportunity for the creation of jobs," while County Executive Souzzi opined, "this designation will now make targeted areas of Nassau County even more attractive to business."

Assemblyman Tom Alfano, whose district includes Elmont, North Valley Stream and West Hempstead, and who, along with Skelos and Suozzi, lobbied forcefully for this initiative, commented enthusiastically. “The types of businesses (attracted to Empire Zones) are the backbone of communities. They provide a stable tax base and help cut taxes for the homeowner. My hope is that this is our first great step in redeveloping Hempstead Turnpike, Linden Boulevard and commercial corridors like Meacham Avenue, Hempstead Avenue and parts of Dutch Broadway. Now we can target brownfields, clean-up areas and real incentives will be in place to do the job right.”

Town of Hempstead Councilman Ed Ambrosino, who represents a good portion of the Town's west end, told The Community Alliance that "It's great that we are finally 'in the zone.' The Empire Zone will be another tool in our arsenal to attract and retain businesses so that we can stabilize our property tax base."

"Our continued fight to eliminate illegal housing and to improve our quality of life, coupled with the Empire Zone benefits available to eligible businesses, will prove to be a formidable mechanism to stabilize our property taxes and help make our common vision for our community a reality," explained Ambrosino. "The residents of the 2nd District owe our State Senators and members of the Assembly a debt of gratitude. Thanks to their collaborative effort with Supervisors Murray, Venditto and Kaiman and County Executive Suozzi, the 2nd District has taken a tremendous step forward."

Local civic and community leaders, while generally upbeat about the creation of an Empire Zone in their back yards as a critical tool in the economic revitalization process, expressed concern over possible untoward development and the further erosion of the property tax base.

"Over the years, I've become very ambivalent about such wonderful sounding initiatives that our community has been promised," declared Scott Jablow, President of the Cathedral Gardens Civic Association in West Hempstead. "For the most part, those who offer the communities improvements with one hand, often take something or never follow through with the other hand. If the community of West Hempstead receives it's share under the plan, then it will be one of the best improvements we've ever seen."

Pat Nicolosi, resident commentator on this blog and President of the Elmont East End Civic Association, was decidedly less optimistic. "Who will make up for the loss in tax revenue from the Empire Zones?," queried Nicolosi. "This is a Band-Aid approach in fixing the taxing problems here on Long Island. If our Local Government is serious and wants to compete with states such as South Dakota, they need to revamp the taxing districts and the way they conduct business here first... I am just afraid this will result in just another tax hike on single-family homeowners."

From this blogger's perspective, moving forward with a plan -- and almost any plan is better than no plan at all -- is a heck of a lot better than standing still.

Yes, the Empire Zone provides a tax exempt status for new businesses, which is troubling where so much of the local tax burden, particularly the school district tax, is already foisted upon the homeowner. Still, a tax free or tax advantaged zone, which stimulates growth, encourages surrounding development, and brings folks back to "Main Street" to shop, to work, and ideally, to live, trumps empty store fronts, vacant lots, and the ghastly image of long-abandoned downtowns. Ghost towns do not contribute to the tax base.

The greater concerns, as we see them at The Community Alliance, are two-fold: (1) Growth and development without a comprehensive plan, a haphazard and almost chaotic pattern over the last fifty years that has left America's oldest suburb pock-marked and scarred with brownfields, dead spaces, and downtowns that are neither people-oriented nor business-friendly, and (2) Growth and development without vision, supplanting ideals of functional public space with ideas of iconoclastic towers.

A recent opinion piece in Newsday, Give The Suburbs A Place To Gather, offered a simple yet thought-provoking perspective on the redevelopment of suburbia -- a place where what we put between buildings is as important, if not more so, than the buildings themselves.

That may well be an over-simplification, given that when we look to attract the appropriate mix for downtown and "Main Street," there is business and there is business. Do we want to develop for development's own sake -- adding the likes of storage facilities, car washes, and tire repair stations to the already over-commercialized Turnpike, or do we seek to revamp with an eye more toward a Miracle Mile (or twenty) on Turnpikes, Highways, and Avenues that are sorely in need of a miracle (or twenty)?

Will we continue to view brick pavers, Victorian street lamps, wrought iron benches, and a couple of coats of whitewash as "revitalization," or will we come to see that community itself begins on "Main Street," where people gather and converse in great public squares, where the boulevard blends with open, walkable spaces, where a mixed use of commerce, recreation and living space create not only ambiance, but vibrance?

Councilman Ed Ambrosino is correct -- "It's great that we are finally 'in the zone.'" Sure, some among us will have to come to grips with what many of us have been saying for years, that our hometowns and favored hamlets are economically depressed. Welcome to reality. And now, there's no place to go but up.

Yes, Nassau County is, indeed, "in the zone." That's the first step taken on what is certain to be a long, if not winding, road. To quote Assemblyman Tom Alfano, who probably said it best, "Now that we have the zone..., we can start to really take a hard look at how we’re going to utilize the zone to help create good jobs for young people. This is a great opportunity for our community. Now we have to seize it and go to work.”

Empire Zones can benefit the community, and have done immeasurable good, across New York State (in coming blogs, we will take a look at the triumphs and tribulations, the progress and the pitfalls, of several existing Empire Zones). With the proper focus, administrative acumen, the will of the elected to join together, and the desire of the populace to succeed, Nassau's Empire Zone can truly create a flourishing suburbia -- renewed, refreshed, and ready to move boldly into this 21st century.
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  1. Not to sound ungreateful but first things first, like my friend Scot Jablow stated we have been promised many things and yet here we are today with the same and even more problems. Just one more question Will the powers who broker this deal work together? I have no doubt about my councilmen Ed Ambrosino and my Assemblymen Tom Alfano but will the other boys and girls play nice and roll up their sleaves to create a dream town? Like I said I am not starting any parade until I see some results so if I seem like a spoiled sport, give me a break we have heard many promises before. And I am still cocerned with the lack of cocern about the single family homeowners tax burden.

  2. Why so fast to heap praise upon Hempstead's Town Hallers?

    As with almost everything else, they dragged their feet on establishing an Empire Zone which would encompass the township. You never saw the Supervisor or any other Hempstead Town official out there lobbying.

    Now that Nassau's Empire Zone is a done deal, everyone is more than eager to get on the bandwagon and take credit. Instead, the Town Hallers should be moved to take action.

    "Mandate" or no date, Supervisor Murray should not be permitted to rest upon the laurels of others who, on behalf of their constituents, took the lead.