The Rockland Business Association—50 Years of Advocacy and Counting

John Jordan | March 2018

Al Samuels, President/CEO, Rockland Business Association, accepts an Award of Recognition from Rockland County Executive Ed Day at the RBA’s 50th Anniversary Extravaganza held on Nov. 2, 2017 at the Crowne Plaza in Suffern.

PEARL RIVER—The Rockland Business Association, an advocate for the business community in Rockland County, is entering its second half-century advocating for the interests of the business community and the growth of the Rockland County economy.

The RBA was founded in August 31, 1967 as the Rockland County Association (RCA), by a group of 40 local business leaders concerned with assisting the county in its growth, both as a business community as well as culturally and socially. The organization over the years has not only sought to represent businesses in Rockland, but locales in the surrounding region. At present, RBA is the most regional of all similar associations in the Hudson Valley, with 24% of its members located outside of Rockland County.

In 2017, the RBA celebrated its 50th anniversary, which culminated in its 50th Anniversary Extravaganza event held at the Crowne Plaza in Suffern last November.

Recently, Real Estate In-Depth spoke with the organization’s longtime leader Al Samuels. The enigmatic RBA President and CEO has been a tireless advocate for the organization’s membership and has not been bashful in taking on controversial issues. Samuels, a strong advocate for the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge, released a White Paper in 2012 and an update on that report authored by Pattern for Progress in 2016 that delved into the reasons behind Rockland County’s high tax burden.

Samuels has been associated with the RBA for 26 years, first as a member and later directing the RBA’s government affairs program as well as being responsible for membership development and sales before being named the association’s president and CEO in 2001. The RBA has grown significantly with Samuels at the helm, increasing its membership from 343 members to 924 members.

The Rockland Business Association’s Construction, Real Estate & Development Council recently held an informative panel discussion at the JCC Rockland in West Nyack on the county’s economic development efforts. The panel included from left: committee chairman Michael Shilale, AIA, LEED Michael Shilale Architects, LLP; RBA President Al Samuels; Steve Porath, executive director of the Rockland County Industrial Development Agency; Jeremy Schulman, president and CEO of the Rockland Economic Development Corp. and Matthew Rand of Better Homes and Gardens Rand Realty.

He made headlines in the fall of 2015 when Haverstraw officials spurned theme park LEGOLAND New York from pursuing its $500-milion project at Letchworth Village due to local opposition. Samuels pulled no punches in his criticism was critical of Haverstraw officials at the time for their decision that was reached even before LEGOLAND filed plans, which resulted in the loss of approximately 1,000 jobs for Rockland County.

RID: What were some of the early issues the RBA worked on under your leadership? I imagine the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement was one of those issues, correct?

Samuels: I think the Tappan Zee was one of the issues from the very beginning… I had been involved with the bridge issue for as long as I have been on staff. So, let me give you a couple of issues from even before I came on board. We were responsible for the County Executive form of government—we pushed for that. Exit 14B of the New York State Thruway and the interchange up in Suffern, the RCA at that time I believe was responsible for that. We also created and founded the Rockland Industrial Development Agency.

Editor’s Note: Samuels then pointed out that under his leadership the RBA put out groundbreaking White Papers in 2012 and again in 2016.

Samuels: The White Paper of 2012 brought to the public forum the issues of Rockland’s debit status for the want of another term, for the financial stress that we were under. By the way, the State Comptroller’s office classified Rockland County as the most fiscally stressed county in the state at that time. And we also had the most fiscally stressed town, which was Ramapo, and the most fiscally stressed village, which was Suffern. And we pointed out causative factors and roads to solution. I take great pride in our position regarding the Summit Park Hospital and that we needed to divest. We had to get rid of the hospital. At that time, the hospital was costing us (the county) $1.1 million a month. It was painful. We had more than 620 union employees there. But, the truth of the matter was that Rockland County could not sustain this $1.1 million a month loss because of 600 employees. The legislature wasn’t willing to do that but our (white) paper and the election of Ed Day (as County Executive) got it done (the facility was closed after a sale of the property failed). And most of those people (employees) are still working in Rockland County, so that was a good thing.

The way the (county government) budgeting was performed was changed. The people responsible for the budgeting were changed. The 2016 White Paper on why Rockland County is the second highest taxed county in the country shed major light on the internal problems of Rockland as well as the external factors that contribute to that. It took about six months for real conversation (on the White Paper’s findings) to begin after it was published. It was a lot to digest and the truth of the matter is that it was painful and sometimes people don’t want to acknowledge the situation exists within the community. But they are still talking about it today and there are actions being taken by town supervisors relative to points that were made. Certainly the County Executive has done things relative to that, so we are very proud of the public policy issues that we bring forward and the things we advocate for because it is not just for the business community. It is for the entire community of Rockland.

Other RBA accomplishments cited by Samuels included:

• The RBA was the first organization to advocate for the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge and was one of three organizations that also included the Business Council of Westchester and the Construction Industry Council of Westchester & Hudson Valley Inc. that formed the Build the Bridge Now advocacy group.

• The closing of the costly Rockland County Pharmacy.

• Twice the RBA successfully advocated against the “living wage” movement.

• Successfully lobbied to not have Rockland County included in the downtstate mandated $15-an-hour minimum wage that will be imposed at the end of this year. Rockland County’s minimum wage will rise like other upstate counties to $12.50-an-hour. Samuels said the $15 rate would have significantly harmed small business in Rockland County.

• The RBA was the first business organization to advocate for broadband infrastructure. Then County Executive Scott Vanderhoef created the Technology Leadership Council to work on broadband initiatives in Rockland.

John Jordan
Editor, Real Estate In-Depth