Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi recently held a public meeting to discuss economic development plans for the Port Washington peninsula. This area, which constitutes one of the county's 35 economic development zones, comprises the incorporated villages of Baxter Estates, Manorhaven, Port Washington North and Sands Point, as well as the unincorporated area, which is governed by the Town of North Hempstead. The meeting was designed to get community input into the county's vision for future economic development. Suozzi said, "[These] are such great communities. We want to take care of these neighborhoods so that residents can enjoy them f Tom Suozzior years to come. I am very pleased that for the first time in many years, Nassau County residents are permitted a hand in shaping the future of their community."
County Executive Tom Suozzi center, gets ready to board the tour bus with County Legislator Craig Johnson (fourth from left, County Supervisor Jon Kaiman (sixth from left), with civic leaders and community officials for an economic development tour of the Port Washington peninsula.
The meeting was preceded by a bus tour around the peninsula that included elected officials, civic leaders, and the press. Suozzi gave a capsule summary of his views on economic development, later presented in more detail at the community meeting. The tour provided an opportunity for civic leaders to point out issues pertaining to different sections as we passed through them, to propose possible solutions, and to react to different ideas that Suozzi threw out. The gist of his message could be summed up in the popular quote, "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got." In this case, what we will get is even higher taxes, further cuts in service and therefore quality of life, worsening traffic, and young people continuing to leave Long Island.
One of the main areas highlighted by Suozzi in the tour was West Shore Road, where the County owns 26 acres of non-parkland property, and where there is an underutilized county beach - Hempstead Harbor Beach Park. A number of persons on the tour cautioned that any development on West Shore Road could increase traffic on Beacon Hill Road, where traffic is already a serious problem. "We can't get out of our driveway now," said one Beacon Hill Road resident. This concern was echoed later at the public hearing. Two other target areas were Main Street and Manorhaven; various economic development ideas and issues were discussed. In Port Washington North, questions were raised about the future of the Shore Road property now occupied by Thompson Industries. Mayor Thomas Pellegrino said that there is a great deal of interest in the property, and that the highest bids are predicated on rezoning to residential. He did not comment as to whether the village is predisposed to considering such rezoning. Later during the meeting, however, Suozzi said, "It is extremely unlikely that you will get another commercial property there."
The Weber auditorium was crowded with Port Washington residents who were eager to hear what Suozzi had to say, and to provide their input into the economic development plan for our community. Also present at the meeting (and on the tour as well) were supervisor Jon Kaiman and County Legislator Craig Johnson, who are working with the county executive on these plans. Johnson, who introduced Suozzi, is a member of the legislature's committee on economic development and labor. In a later interview, Johnson said, "There is really great cooperation between Tom and John and me in accomplishing this." He added, "I thought the meeting was excellent; I really appreciated that the county executive solicited ideas from the Port Washington community about the future of our area. It was not just a case of a government official simply telling us what our future will be."
Suozzi opened by saying that he was pleased to say that the county's immediate financial issues have been brought under control, which enables us to now address long-term economic development issues. He said that after a tremendous growth Nassau County has stopped growing. Tax revenues, therefore, will not grow unless the County actively pursues economic development. Added to this is the fact that federal revenues have also steadily been reduced. "You might say, cut expenses," commented Suozzi. "Well, we've already done that. If we cut further, it will severely affect our quality of life." He added that many expenses, like Medicaid, pensions and others, are state-mandated. "If we continue the way we've been going," he said, "taxes will go up, quality of life will go down, traffic will get worse, and our young people will continue to leave Long Island. We have to look at doing things in a new way."
Responding to these issues, Suozzi said that the county is creating a vision for managed growth for what he called "The New Suburbia." This vision comprises targeted growth, balanced and diversified housing, "quality of life," low crime, low unemployment, local zoning control, and a sustainable and realistic approach to traffic congestion. Included in the vision are strategies to expand the county's tax base and the creation of high wage jobs with good benefits. This needs to be done in a way that preserves our suburban quality of life, which incorporates high property values, excellent public schools, natural resources, a low crime rate, and hospitals that are among the best in the country.
Suozzi pointed out that there are many challenges to achieving these goals. Among them are
* Overdeveloped commercial strips and lack of open space
* Decline of our downtowns
* Traffic congestion and lack of mass transit
* Older and/or polluted industrial sites (brownfields)
* High cost of living and pockets of poverty
* Illegal housing and lax code enforcement
Challenges specific to Port Washington include traffic congestion in downtown and splintered government. "What is needed," said Suozzi, "is comprehensive planning." But, and it's a big but, the County of Nassau consists of three towns, two cities and 64 incorporated villages, plus assorted school districts, police districts, and other special districts. "This is total craziness!" Suozzi commented. The job of building a consensus will fall to the Nassau County Planning Federation, which has been charged with fashioning a zoning plan in partnership with local governments. In Port Washington, they will be working with and gathering input from the village governments, the Chamber of Commerce, the BID, the General Council of Homeowner Associations, Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington, the Community Chest, the Police District, the Port Washington Library, Landmark on Main Street, and individual residents. The federation is headed up by May Newburger, former supervisor of the Town of North Hempstead, who was present at the meeting.
Suozzi unveiled a ten-point plan for long-term economic goals over the next five to 10 years. The two major industries that they are focusing on promoting in Nassau County are high tech businesses that can take advantage of our highly educated work force; and sports, entertainment and tourism. The latter industry would include museums and historic sites, recreation, boating, hiking and biking, professional sports, golfing, and the like. One primary target for development is our downtowns, many of which have vacant storefronts. Suozzi said, "People define an area by its downtown. Downtown builds a sense of community. It provides jobs, attracts other businesses, and increases spending." Consistent with his intention to ameliorate traffic conditions, he intends to promote sustainable transportation and make the downtowns pedestrian-friendly, Suozzi asked, "Do you want people living in your downtown?" Living over storefronts was prohibited by most building codes in the first half of the last century, but is now considered by many to be a solution to the issues of affordable housing and traffic congestion.
Another important target is the cleanup and re-development of "brownfields," (contaminated properties), restoring them to productive use. Suozzi would also like to see investment in emerging minority communities, where there has been little investment in the past. The third is the much-publicized Nassau Hub, which would extend from Mineola to Roosevelt Field, the Coliseum, Eisenhower Park, downtown Hempstead, and so forth. (The area that some of us refer to as "the shopping center of the universe.") Suozzi said that he would like to see this area become the "downtown" of Nassau County, saying, "It could be the key to our future." Plans for the hub would need to include a comprehensive system of public transportation, as well as an investment in infrastructure improvements. He said that Carolyn McCarthy has introduced a bill to provide funds for the creation of a transportation plan.
"None of this is going to happen tomorrow," said Suozzi. "We have to agree on a vision for five years, 10 years." Summarizing, he said, "We must consider alternatives to automobile-oriented development, and we have to preserve the open space that we have."
Suozzi kicked off the question and answer period by taking a poll of the audience regarding the potential uses of the 25-acre parcel of non-park land that the county owns on West Shore Road. The overwhelming majority of those in attendance wanted playing fields for the children (which might not be a revenue-generating use). Virtually no one wanted another golf course or residential units. There seemed to be some cautious support for another industrial park or a resort hotel. (As noted previously, Beacon Hill Road residents were understandably concerned about additional traffic.)
In response to a comment by Bob O'Brien (full disclosure: the reporter's husband) calling for the General Council to continue its efforts to combine the governments of the peninsula, Suozzi asked, "How many people think this should be all one government?" Virtually everyone in the room raised his or her hand, and there was a great deal of applause. Suozzi said, "Elected officials take note." In a subsequent conversation, legislator Craig Johnson said that it would be very difficult to accomplish such a move, but given the widespread support for the idea, he added, "I'm looking at it."
Peter Dejana, head of Dejana Industries, took some exception to Suozzi's desire to target only "high-tech, high-skilled" industries. Dejana, whose company provides garbage, snow removal and other maintenance services to the Town of North Hempstead and many of the villages within it, suggested that low-tech, lower-skilled jobs should also be included in the plan. He also protested high commercial real estate taxes.
Another comment included a suggestion that we work with the universities on creating high-tech incubators and so forth - Suozzi indicated that we are doing so. Art Mittelstaedt, an expert in the sports and recreation field, urged that the county include amateur as well as professional sports in its plan. He also pleaded for preservation of open space. Dan Donatelli, executive vice president of Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington and previous president of the General Council urged the county to "make a concerted effort to preserve and enhance the historic connection with the waterfront." He also asked for a study on water usage. Suozzi responded that the county has just hired a coordinator of environmental access, and that they hope to re-start the geologic survey of salt water intrusion this year or next year. Another concern was Sheets Creek, which is in the process of a major cleanup. Steve Lapham, president of the BID, said that we do need housing in the downtown area; there seemed to be consensus among the crowd about this.
The feedback after the meeting was very positive. The residents of Port Washington are enthusiastic about participating in visioning an economic development plan, and grateful that their elected officials are including them in the process.
The entire plan can be downloaded from www.nassaucountydevelopment.org. To request additional information or to submit comments, the contact person is Ian Siegel, Special Assistant to the County Executive, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.