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Help! We’ve Been Buttafuocoed

I know a place that’s stuffed with scientific brilliance. World-class research labs. Universities. Medical schools. Cutting-edge hospitals that are the envy of the planet. Aerospace engineers. Software companies, including one of the industry’s largest independents.  And an up-and-coming generation that this year alone took 53 of the 300 spots nationwide in the Intel Science Talent Search.

I am speaking, of course, of Long Island. And despite the recent news from Northrop Grumman that 850 high-paying, high-tech jobs are leaving Bethpage, Nassau and Suffolk counties remain a science and technology powerhouse.

Yet tell people in other parts of the country where you’re from, and many more will mention Joey Buttafuoco than our numerous Nobel laureates.

You could argue that scandal is more memorable than science, but headline-grabbing infidelity from 1992 is not the first thing that springs to mind when someone mentions Silicon Valley (California), Silicon Alley (Manhattan) Silicon Hills (Austin), Jet City (Seattle) or any other tech hot-spot in America.

There’s something about the Amy Loves Joey affair that gives it staying power. It’s clearly not that this is the timeless tale of an auto-body guy and a high school girl. Instead, I maintain, it’s that many people believe these goofy, ridiculously violent shenanigans (remember, Mary Jo, then Mrs. B, was shot in the face) are the embodiment of Long Island. In other words, they are the meme of the place we call home.

It’s astounding to me that Long Island hasn’t been able to shake the image in two-plus decades. After all, at least two of the primary characters don’t live here anymore.

As a region, we have been unable to make a lasting positive impression much beyond our borders.

We haven’t done it with sports (“How about those Nets?” Oooops. “How about those Islanders?” Oooops.).

Nor with infrastructure (The LIE and LIRR are—sometimes undeservedly—punchlines, along with some of the highest property taxes and electricity rates in the country).

Our elected officials have, historically, been as nearsighted as Mr. Magoo when it comes to intelligent development. But once you realize that Nassau County brings in the lion’s share of its revenue from sales tax, you know why shopping centers are so ubiquitous. Add in the property taxes retail developments pay, and it’s not unthinkable to put “SALE!” on our county seal.

Of course, there are efforts to promote our island as the wonderful home for technology that it is. Accelerate LI, a Melville-based group certainly is high-profile, with a board comprised of the top executives from the island’s best tech and science operations (including Cold Spring Harbor Lab, Hofstra and Stony Brook universities, Brookhaven National Lab, North Shore-LIJ Health System and CA Technologies). These people can speak as peers to the captains of the world’s science and tech giants, while at the same time understand the needs of start-up companies. It’s great to have them in our corner.

But that’s not enough. Our politicians also must show some depth, and go beyond mere sound bites of economic development. We need our elected officials to truly, accurately and knowledgeably represent our island as the perfect place to build and grow science and technology companies. They have to provide real, substantive support for these efforts. Instead of blathering on about how they are creating “jobs,” our pols should be working to create “industries.”

Retail isn’t going to save us. Nor are the stores’ sales and property taxes. (Witness Nassau’s financial basket-case status despite our blanket of shopping opportunities.)

We have a real chance to build upon our island’s amazing science and technology foundation, and do so in a big, big way. Our goal should be to not only take the pain out of the loss of Grumman’s well-paying tech jobs, but to replace them many times over. This is what it’s going to take to make our island renowned for something other than Joey & Co.