Westchester ‘Smart’ Survey Reveals County’s Strengths, Weaknesses

John Jordan | April 1, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 9.38.50 PMWHITE PLAINS—Westchester County government is using the results of a far-reaching survey that revealed the county’s inherent strengths and weaknesses when it comes to attracting and retaining businesses here. While some of the results were far from surprising, the survey did uncover important issues business and civic leaders share, as well as key differences among various industries and age demographics as to the key factors that drive their business location decisions.

Earlier this year Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino released a new report entitled, “Westchester Smart: Ideas and initiatives for a stronger economy.” The report grew out of candid roundtable discussions held between February and August of 2014 with 50 community leaders who represented key demographic and business sectors that included: business, municipal, higher education, healthcare, and not-for profit officials, as well as young professionals. The 32-page report identified the county’s strengths and challenges.

The top three strengths were recognized as the following:

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 9.38.57 PMTalent: Westchester has one of the most educated workforces anywhere. The county boasts 45% of its residents possess a bachelor’s degree or higher. Only the District of Columbia ranks higher than Westchester County. The report stated that the county’s challenge is to capitalize on Westchester’s brand as “New York’s Intellectual Capital.” It should be noted that 27% of New York State residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher while 32% of New York City residents have such a designation. The county’s highly skilled workforce is key to business and particularly to the county’s emerging biotech and healthcare industries, according to William M. Mooney, III, director of Westchester County’s Office of Economic Development.

Accessibility: Both local and global destinations are within easy reach thanks to four interstate highways, six parkways, three commuter rail lines and Westchester County Airport, ranked the second largest corporate airport in the nation.

Quality of Life: Schools, shopping, restaurants, recreation and thousands of acres of open space that feature scenic parks, trails, lakes, mountains and waterfronts along the Hudson River and Long Island Sound make the county an attractive place to live, work and play.

The top three challenges were:

Affordability: High taxes and housing prices make Westchester an expensive place to live and do business.

Complexity: Navigating Westchester’s multiple layers of local government can be frustrating, expensive and time consuming.

Identity: The dynamism of Westchester is often overshadowed by a reputation for being “your father’s Oldsmobile.”

Some of the more revealing results that showed the disparity among the participants included responses to the question: “What do businesses see as the top priorities when making a business decision?” Business leaders ranked access to an educated/skilled workforce as its top choice, followed by taxes and economic incentives, quality of life and pro-business environment. Young professionals on the other hand ranked access to mass transit as its number one choice, followed by competitive office rents and access to highways.

The report noted that municipal officials provided a different spin, emphasizing trying to make their communities attractive to businesses and their workers. Their top priorities were in descending order property taxes, access to highways and competitive office rents.

The question: “What are the greatest opportunities to attract new businesses to Westchester within the next five years?” also drew varied responses.

Business leaders ranked availability of a well-educated and skilled workforce as its top priority, while municipal leaders overwhelmingly scored improved transportation infrastructure as their top choice. Healthcare professionals scored larger variety of housing choices as their top priority, while young professionals tabbed more development of mixed-use urban centers as their number one priority.

“These demographics and the information we are getting from our strengths and challenges is what is driving our economic development efforts and the way we are going to put our energies into it,” Mooney said.

He later added that while the report delineated some of the county’s weaknesses, the positive responses to the state of Westchester’s economy far outweighed the negatives.

Mooney related that the county is working with municipalities to address the need for Transit-Oriented Development that young professionals demand. He noted that cities such as White Plains, Yonkers, New Rochelle, Ossining and Tarrytown are all engaged in developing more TOD-type projects. In addition, municipalities have put in place zone changes to facilitate adaptive-reuse efforts along the Platinum Mile corporate office corridor along I-287 that could include rental housing development.

In connection with the report’s release, Westchester County Executive Astorino said he was launching five new “smart” initiatives in 2015 and beyond.

Initiatives to be rolled out in 2015 include:

“A Job’s Waiting for You” Training: This program will train and place 500 individuals in high demand healthcare jobs in the next four years.

The Mobile “App” Development Bowl: Westchester County and Pace University are holding a mobile application development competition for the area’s college and high school students. Prizes include cash awards and paid internships with Westchester County. Awards were announced on April 17.

Mobile Friendly Web Site: Westchester County will launch a redesigned county web site that makes information easier to find and more accessible on mobile devices.

Navigating Westchester: This initiative will 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.

A Summit for Profits and Not-for-Profits: Westchester County will bring together 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.

John Jordan
Editor, Real Estate In-Depth