Orange County’s Commercial Market Outlook is Upbeat Despite Pandemic

John Jordan | November 2020

From left, back row: Maureen Halahan, Orange County Partnership and RJ Smith - Rand Commercial; front row: Sandy Mathes, Mathes Public Affairs and Nick Fitzpatrick, Aden Landholdings.

TOWN OF WALLKILL—Panelists and participants in the Orange County Partnership’s recently held Commercial Market Forecast were bullish on investment and development interest and opportunities in Orange County in spite of and in some instances because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program was held on Oct. 27 at the West Hills Country Club and was attended by 50 guests, the maximum attendance allowable under COVID-regulations. The panelists for the program were: R.J. Smith, broker with Rand Commercial Realty; Alexander “Sandy” Mathes, president of economic development consulting firm Mathes Public Affairs and Nick Fitzpatrick, owner of Alden Landholdings, which sold property in Montgomery to Medline Industries for its new more than 1 million-square-foot distribution center that is currently under construction.

Veteran real estate broker Smith related that Orange County’s prime location has been and will continue to be the key to its success. He noted that 28 million people live within 100 miles of Orange County and 51 million people reside within 200 miles of the county. All of these people are consumers that could be served by Amazon and other consumer and health care product suppliers.

“If you look at a map of the Northeast, where is the center of the Northeast? Orange County,” Smith said.

Because of its strong demographics, Orange County will continue to be a mecca for major distribution facilities, such as Amazon and Medline.

He cited the success of the Neelytown Road area in Montgomery as a location where the town, the county and the state collaborated and identified a location that could accommodate commercial development.

Smith also detailed a host of challenges to commercial development in Orange County, including site conditions, regulatory obstacles from municipal, state, DOT and other agencies, as well as labor shortages, specifically in high tech and transportation positions.

Another issue that will have to be addressed is the changing face of retail and the issues that have caused large retail vacancies both in Orange County and in locations nationwide. What are suitable uses for large blocks of vacant space, such as the Toys R’ Us and Kids R’ Us space in the Town of Wallkill for example.

Mathes said the perception that there is strong demand by New York City residents and companies relocating to the suburbs is real. He noted that locations that want to attract city businesses must add urban amenities in smaller and safer environments.

He added to accomplish that, cities or villages may need to invest to create the amenities normally found in urban areas. Locations will also have to embrace the work at home concept.

“Where people live, work and play are going to be a new concept that we will really need to focus on, especially in the suburbs,” Mathes stressed.

Another key trend is that businesses and particularly workers in Manhattan no longer want to utilize mass transit. He noted that for the last 30 years the trend was towards mass transit and environmentally progressive policies. “Now, they want cars and they want to be able to drive to a large parking lot so they do not have to get on a bus or a subway,” he noted.

Other key economic factors Mathes cited were: site predictability, appropriately scaled infrastructure, available workforce, partnerships with economic development, community engagement, incentives and talent attraction and quality of life.

He concluded that businesses looking to relocate to the suburbs are now seeking to recreate a “village feel” where business parks feel like a village and have community-type amenities built into the business parks.

Fitzpatrick discussed his firm’s acquisition of the Montgomery parcel that was later sold to Medline and revealed that his firm has made a number of other land purchases since then that it will be preparing to make shovel ready for future development.

He told the assemblage that Orange County is a prime location and is seeing strong demand for fulfillment centers.

Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus also addressed the crowd and said that although there were some COVID hot spots that caused some increases in the COVID infection rates, he believes the county is on the right track in dealing with the coronavirus.

In discussing the business environment in the era of COVID-19, Neuhaus was very bullish. “This is where it’s at,” Neuhaus said. “I am very optimistic about the future of Orange County. We are the trend setter in the state. County Executives throughout the state, and even New York City Mayor (Bill) de Blasio wishes they had what we have in the pipeline, what we have in our portfolio.”

The program also featured Maureen Halahan, president and CEO of the Orange County Partnership and Michael Gilfeather, chairman of the Orange County Partnership and president and CEO of Orange Bank & Trust Co., who discussed the organization’s operations in 2020 and the pandemic’s impact on its operations.

Gilfeather noted that in discussions with other Board members of the Partnership, all seem optimistic about their operations going forward. For example, Gilfeather noted that the pipeline of loans at Orange Bank & Trust has never been stronger.

John Jordan
Editor, Real Estate In-Depth