Business Leaders Say Westchester is on the Right Track

John Jordan | May 2015

TARRYTOWN—A panel of municipal officials and commercial real estate developers believe that despite the high cost of doing business, the duplication of services, and the lengthy approval process, Westchester County is on the right track to grow its economy and its population in the future.

At The Business Council of Westchester’s regular KeyBank Speaker Series, the panel praised efforts to foster transit-oriented development in the county as well as adaptive reuse initiatives geared at finding alternative uses to underutilized office buildings, particularly along the I-287 Platinum Mile corridor in Harrison and White Plains.

The program, held on April 28 at the Tappan Hill Mansion in Tarrytown, began with an address by Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino who called for the reform of the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) and the state’s worker’s compensation regulations, as well as the repeal of the state’s costly Scaffold Law.

Astorino, who noted that he has proposed for the sixth straight year no increase in the county’s property tax levy, said the high cost of living and doing business in New York State is causing an exodus to lower cost states.

The county executive related that this outmigration has been going on for years. He noted that in 1980 New York’s population was 80% higher than that of Florida. This year, Florida’s population has surpassed New York’s.

“Today 800 people a day move to Florida, many of them from New York,” Astorino said. “Now think about that for a second, in a year that’s the entire population of Yonkers, plus White Plains, plus Peekskill, plus the city of Rye. I know the weather is nice in Florida, but anyone who doesn’t think the exodus from New York to places like Florida, the Carolinas and Texas is not because of high taxes and suffocating regulation need to have their meds checked. It is the number one reason people are leaving.”

Astorino said that the county is one of the fastest growing counties in New York State and that his job as county executive is to squeeze county expenses rather than the taxpayers and try to facilitate where possible the consolidation or sharing of services with municipal governments. He noted that recently an agreement was reached whereby Westchester County will provide public safety for the Village of Mount Kisco.

The panel discussion featured Robert Weisz, chairman and CEO of RPW Group; Tim Jones, partner and managing member of Robert Martin Co.; William Mooney III, director of Westchester’s Office of Economic Development; Marsha Gordon, president and CEO of The Business Council of Westchester; Wilson Kimball, commissioner of planning and development for the City of Yonkers; Harrison Mayor Ron Belmont and Bronxville Mayor Mary Marvin. Geoff Thompson, managing partner of Thompson & Bender, moderated the lively discussion.

Weisz said that at present the biggest obstacle to luring new companies to the county is the lack of young residents and workers. He estimated that several thousand jobs are unfilled in the area due in large part to the lack of young workers. He said the reason for this shortage of workers is due to the high cost of housing and the “lack of excitement” in the county’s major cities.

However, Weisz said that cities such as Yonkers and White Plains are on the right track and are making their respective downtowns more vibrant while also increasing the rental housing stock there as well.

Jones was also upbeat on the county’s future. “The future is bright,” he said. “Twenty years from now, the millennials will be moving to the suburbs … Westchester is a mature market, and it will continue to re-invent itself.”

Westchester County’s Mooney said many of Westchester’s towns and cities have a “millennial urban feel,” similar to New York City, but at a much lower cost.

“Our commercial rents are half the cost of New York City and we’re less than 30 miles from mid-town,” he said. “We’re on the rise. We’re perfectly positioned to grow and thrive.”

John Jordan
Editor, Real Estate In-Depth