A Conversation With: Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino

John Jordan | April 1, 2015

a conversation wWHITE PLAINS—Since taking office in 2010, Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino has waged a campaign to revitalize the Westchester economy by taking advantage of the county’s “Intellectual Capital,” as well as its emerging biotechnology and healthcare sectors that continued to fuel job creation and economic growth in Westchester in 2014.

Armed with the results of a far-reaching survey of top business and civic leaders that delineated the county’s strengths and weaknesses, the County Executive has proposed a host of “smart” initiatives geared at taking advantage of what makes Westchester so attractive to business and begin to address the issues that have served as impediments to economic growth.

The five “smart” initiatives geared at promoting economic growth in the county include “A Job’s Waiting for You” training program that will train and place 500 individuals in high demand healthcare jobs in the next four years in the seven-county Hudson Valley region. The program, funded through a $10-million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. should easily place 1,000 people into the healthcare field, Astorino said.

Other initiatives announced by the County Executive earlier this year were: “The Mobile ‘App’ Development Bowl,” a mobile application development competition for the area’s college and high school students. Prizes include cash awards and paid internships with Westchester County. The contest will be run by Westchester County and Pace University. County Executive Astorino said the first competition will involve developing mobile apps to help with the care of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The county is also launching a redesigned county website that makes information easier to find and more accessible on mobile devices.

The county is also looking to bring together real estate developers, municipal officials, planning experts and members of neighborhood associations to discuss strategies for improving all aspects of the development process, including sharing resources, streamlining bureaucracies and speeding decisions. The county is also planning a summit for this fall that will convene leaders from the profit and not-for-profit sectors to look at the roles each plays, opportunities for greater collaboration, funding, and issues of mutual concern, such as housing, transportation and day care.

The County Executive recently sat down in his office at the County Office Building in White Plains and responded to questions posed by Real Estate In-Depth that focused on some of the key economic issues facing the county today and his new economic development strategy.

Q: At least part of your administration’s economic development strategy pertains to the results of a recent survey of the county’s strengths and weaknesses. What makes this different from past economic development initiatives the county has undertaken?

Astorino: Well, I think we went in the weeds and are beginning to understand that there are different segments that we have to understand—it  is not just the business person, but it is the worker the business person is trying to attract to Westchester. As a result (of the survey) you saw the disparity between what is important to them. So it gives us an opportunity to address those and if you address them properly you are going to be successful and the economy is going to grow because business is going to be attracted here and the talent pool is going to come. The talent pool, especially younger residents or non-residents, are concerned about transportation, that is the big thing. We need to make sure that we get transit-oriented development and work with the MTA for buses and trains. These are all important aspects that we probably would have overlooked if we just talked to the business owner about what is important. So this is more broad- (based).

Q: How is the survey different than other reports that have collected dust over the years. Will this be part of a multi-year economic development strategy?

Astorino: It is a good tool because when the Industrial Development Agency (IDA) or the Local Development Corporation (LDC) is talking to a company in trying to induce them to invest here, we can show them we have done our homework and that it’s for them an opportunity to learn more about the marketplace, which they may not have known. So for them it is helpful because they know how to target and attract as well. It (the survey) was fairly in-depth and people took it seriously. We had some surprises in there that people didn’t expect, so I think that is healthy. You are right. It could go on a shelf as the other many studies that this county has done through the decades do, or we could use it as a tool. Our intention is to use it as a tool in cooperation with the IDA, the LDC, the economic development team, the Business Council of Westchester, the Westchester County Association, etc.

Q: A key part of your business attraction and retention efforts are tax incentives through the IDA and recently formed LDC. How are these agencies performing and are they succeeding in bringing in new jobs and investment to the county?

Astorino: I think you have two categories. You’ve got initial jobs that are attached to a project, like construction jobs, short-term jobs. Then you have the permanent jobs that are created. I just drove by White Plains Hospital the other day and I am amazed at the construction going on there. I am happy because we were helpful in that (project) and that is where the county and our tools really can be effective. We worked with White Plains Hospital and now we are starting to see the fruits of our labor here when you are going to have hundreds of new jobs attached to that, a medical facility that is going to be world class, and an anchor in Central Westchester. So that I think is a prime example and we get to see that.

Editor’s Note: Last year the Westchester County IDA approved incentives for a more than $100-million expansion/upgrade of the hospital’s campus and recently approved additional incentives in connection with the hospital’s lease of 50,000 square feet of space at 101 East Post Road that is slated for redevelopment.

Q; There have been some recent court rulings in the long-standing $56-million Fair Housing case. Where does the issue stand now and how many of the 750 mandated housing units have been built thus far. Are you ahead or behind schedule?

Editor’s Note: The county provided the following statistics in connection with its court-mandate to provide 750 fair and affordable housing units. As of March 30, the county is in compliance and ahead of schedule. It has 223 units that are occupied, 454 have financing, of which 406 have building permits. 

Astorino: We are now in the sixth year and we have to complete it (750 units) by the end of next year. So we have a clock running, which we have always had, but we have been staying on top of this, working with the Planning Department, working with all the communities, working with developers and because I think we have taken a very cooperative approach with our communities—still respecting local zoning, but working with every community—we have been able to stay ahead of schedule, avoid any penalties, and we are on our way to finalizing this.

“Hospitality and tourism are doing very well, including the film industry. A lot of productions—television, commercials and films—are being shot in Westchester… Food and beverage is doing well in Westchester.”

The hiccup has always come when the federal government has tried to inject new terms and demands on us and that is where we drew the line and we wouldn’t allow them to cross it because there was a lot at stake. The Second Circuit just ruled in favor of the county and overturned the District Court Judge on something very important. The ruling basically said to HUD that you don’t have unfettered power, there is judicial review for what you do, you don’t get to be the judge and jury and in order for a community to have money taken away to be penalized there needs to be a violation of federal law. There was no violation of federal law. They tried linking zoning and tried to force the county and municipalities to change their zoning to HUD’s liking and take power away from local communities in exchange for the Community Development Block Grant money and other funds appropriated and due these communities. We felt that was completely unfair and unlawful. As a result we went to federal court and the issue was that HUD has judicial overview and that they cannot tie these issues to something that was not originally intended…

Editor’s Note: The County Executive said the matter now goes back to the District Court Judge. He said that no matter the outcome, the county won a major court decision that has national implications “because it does put a check and balance and a limit on the power of HUD as opposed to letting them run wild.”

Q; Your efforts to redevelop Rye Playland suffered a setback recently. Where exactly does your effort stand and will we see a final agreement sometime this year?

Astorino: I believe so, yes. Playland is sticky because it is such an emotional place for so many people, but ultimately it is a money loser for the county and is a big drain and needs millions and millions of new capital to spruce the whole park up and to make it a much better experience, and we are not prepared to do that and I don’t think we should anymore. So we want to make sure that we can in some sense privatize Playland where we will get a much better Playland amusement park that will take away our losses, will still be able to have a much better experience for the patron and one day hopefully makes money. So we are certainly looking at finalizing something with Playland in the near future.

Editor’s Note: County Executive Astorino announced the selection of a vendor to redevelop Rye Playland on April 14

Q: The county has been working with Fareri Associates on a plan to develop 60 vacant acres at the Grasslands compound into a mixed-use development that would feature biotech space. Where does that stand and could we see a shovel in the ground there in 2015?

Astorino: There won’t be a shovel in the ground this year, but we have made a lot of progress. It is so intricate because you are dealing with a long-term lease, you are dealing with 60 acres that right now are undeveloped so you had to go through the process of what is the fair market value and what would be the county’s return. You also got the right of first refusal with the Westchester Medical Center, you have the County Board of Legislators involved, as well as the Town of Mount Pleasant, so there are a lot of moving parts. We wanted to make sure that it’s taxable property so the county and the town would benefit and putting it all together has taken time, but we want to make sure it gets done the right way—that there is a solid lease and that the fair market value will be paid by Fareri…We are trying to bring it hone, but it has been a lawyer’s delight because every sentence leads to five questions…

Editor’s Note: Fareri changed some facets of the project, some of which were rejected by the county and Mount Pleasant, particularly the development of housing at the site. The project is to include biotech, life science, and retail space, according to the County Executive.

Q: Do you believe the Westchester County economy is on a growth path and if so what sectors will lead the way?

Astorino: It is growing, population-wise. It was one of the few counties in the state to grow in population. I think it is up about 2%. The economy is expanding; we have added private sector jobs. Healthcare is exploding. Healthcare is the foundation that is leading to the growth and strength (of the Westchester economy). You see a lot of the medical industries and hospitals in New York City investing in Westchester. That is the field that is growing by leaps and bounds.

Hospitality and tourism are doing very well, including the film industry. A lot of productions—television, commercials and films—are being shot in Westchester… Food and beverage is doing well in Westchester. Restaurant Week was another big success.

The economy is doing well, it could always be better, but it is doing well. I think we have gotten through the worst of it. We certainly from a county government perspective looked inward as to what we could do better and smarter and more efficient. It actually was a good exercise because it forced the county to strip out some of the expenses that were being approved year-after-year with little return on that investment. So, we were able to pare down the workforce, take a tougher stand with our unions and work with them ultimately to get good deals that benefit the taxpayers. So that has been a very good exercise during a very bad period of time and I think we are a much healthier county since then and we haven’t had to raise taxes and in fact we have been able cut back on the tax levy. The budget is smaller than it was when we walked in the door.

John Jordan
Editor, Real Estate In-Depth