Five Questions With Maureen Halahan Orange County Partnership President & CEO
John Jordan | September 23, 2021
GOSHEN—Ever since the COVID-19 hit this region back in March 2020, one of the bright spots for the Hudson Valley economy has been Orange County where, despite the challenges the pandemic has brought, major projects and investment continue almost undeterred.
Orange County has seen Amazon and Medline build new massive distribution facilities, while the much-anticipated LEGOLAND New York opened for business recently to much fanfare. Even the struggling hospitality sector is rebounding, with many new hotel projects in the ground or on the drawing boards and reports that on weekends no hotel room can be found within the borders of the county.
This month, Real Estate In-Depth turned to Orange County Partnership President and Chief Executive Officer Maureen Halahan to find out where the economy is in its recovery from COVID-19 and what growth sectors have emerged.
She was also questioned on the challenges the county faces and the prospects on whether the long hoped for expansion of Route 17 will move forward and break ground.
Halahan, who was born and raised in the Hudson Valley, is one of the most recognizable faces in economic development in the region and the state. She became the President and CEO of the Orange County Partnership in 2002, making her the longest serving economic development professional in the Mid-Hudson Region.
She is a long-standing member of the Governor’s Mid-Hudson Regional Council and also serves on the Citizens Advisory Panel – New York Stewart International Airport. Halahan is a member of the New York State Economic Development Council, CoreNet International, an international site-selection industry association and the 17Forward86 coalition, which the Orange County Partnership was instrumental in founding.
In the past five years, the Orange County Partnership has assisted with the attraction and/or expansion of 99 companies. These transactions have generated $902,446,000 in capital investment and created 3,146 new jobs in Orange County.
Real Estate In-Depth: The Orange County economy has been on the road to recovery for the past year or so. The latest unemployment statistics from the New York State Department of Labor indicate that the jobless rate in the county as of July had fallen from 12.4% in 2020 to 5.3% this year. Can you describe the impact COVID had on the Orange County market and share your view on the health of the county’s economy today?
Halahan: Key indicators show that things are definitely coming back. The Hospitality industry is reopening and venues are booking up years in advance. People are getting out again. The demand for more product is happening and while the supply is not sufficient, it’s going to come around again. Hotels that are either under construction or in the planning stages are developing faster than we can keep up with. Right now, in Orange County on the weekends you can’t get a room. So, on the hospitality side we see a tremendous amount of growth.
Another indicator that proves that we are moving toward a healthy economy is the amount of SPEC (speculative) construction and that is taking place throughout the county. Developers are constructing industrial buildings prior to securing an end-user. In most cases, the buildings are fully leased before the roof is on. That kind of confidence is also reflected in the number of national developers that are before planning boards seeking generic approvals. They are investing millions of dollars preparing land for construction without knowing who will take the space.
One such national developer is proposing two separate 1-million-square-foot e-commerce centers in a town that recognizes the value of the jobs and tax ratables that will follow. Orange County is facing a time in history where we have to seize the momentum and we are! Municipalities want the growth in their designated corridors. We are seeing a considerable amount of retail, pharmaceutical and distribution. Both Medline and Cardinal Health, long-standing companies that have enjoyed success in Orange County, are expanding. So, it’s not all new attractions. Our current companies are growing at the same rate. And, it’s not just the million-square-footers, there are dozens of smaller requirements that are building-to-suit.
Things are happening quickly. The big story is the developers are getting their approvals and next year construction is going to explode. I hope we have enough workers to build and construct these projects.
Real Estate In-Depth: The Orange County Partnership has been a strong proponent of major improvements and an expansion to be undertaken on Route 17 from Harriman to Monticello. Preliminary cost estimates have put the cost of the project as high as more than $1 billion. Is this project feasible and do you expect the federal infrastructure bill to direct some funding for the Route 17 expansion?
Halahan: The $1-billion estimate is only if it goes literally from Harriman straight through to Monticello. That’s why that number is so explosive. That cost estimate assumes that the road needs to be widened without the use of the median and by purchasing all those additional right-of-ways. So, that is why that number is so much greater than the anticipated $500 million. There are cost estimates that are half of that because we don’t know if the New York State Department of Transportation will determine that it’s needed to go the entire route.
The $500-million we believe is still the number if the DOT is allowed to use the median. On the federal side, U.S. Sen. (Charles) Schumer has been a staunch supporter of the project. He remains engaged. He has been a long-time proponent and we are optimistic that the funds will be available to allow the project to go forward. We believe it is going to happen.
Real Estate In-Depth: What are the growth sectors that your organization is focusing on in Orange County? There has been a significant amount of new projects throughout the county of late. Can you explain why investors have chosen Orange County for their developments, particularly as the hotel/hospitality industry continues to suffer from low demand due to the pandemic?
Halahan: Regionally speaking, we are still less expensive (than other competing markets) and Orange County has an abundance of supportive infrastructure. What people don’t see is the number of small- to mid-sized manufacturers in Orange County. Our portfolio is rich with new projects and existing assembly and manufacturing businesses. What hits the paper is the big explosive projects like Amazon or Medline and others. For instance, we are working with a truck chassis assembly manufacturer in New Windsor. New Windsor Supervisor George Meyers likes the location—it’s zoned appropriately and we hope it’s another win for Orange County. The New Jersey-based company found the location attractive and we were more affordable than New Jersey. Phase two of its overall plan is to construct a larger building on the site next year. This multiplier effect puts people to work and strengthens our economy.
Breweries are big and they are popping up all over. The Mid-Hudson Regional Council just deemed one of the breweries in the Town of Wallkill a significant priority project. And marijuana is a burgeoning industry with several projects in various stages of development and planning. It’s everywhere, but in this county, it is big. Yesterday, Green Thumb Industries broke ground on their project in Warwick…
Other projects of note include the Sims-Foster Supply (Grand Street project) in the City of Newburgh, which was also deemed a priority by the Mid-Hudson Regional Council. Sims Foster out of Sullivan County is going to be redeveloping the Masonic Hall, the American Legion and the YMCA (in Newburgh). They are going to be pumping millions and millions of dollars into the city and the multiplier in terms of outside dollars being spent in the city is a big number. Recently, we also had City Winery open in Montgomery and the Barn at Villa Venezia (a new hospitality venue) in the Town of Wallkill debuted.
The film industry is growing in Orange County. You have Choice Films in New Windsor. They are going to take over the Anthony’s Pier 9 building and that is going to pour a ton of money into our economy. Also, we recently met with the Dino Park, which will be built in the Town of Wallkill…
Editor’s Note: Halahan added that with the Dino Park, LEGOLAND New York, the Castle, and Woodbury Common Premium Outlets, “We are becoming more and more of a destination.”
Real Estate In-Depth: What are some of the critical issues facing Orange County in the years ahead: the future growth of New York Stewart International Airport, transportation, regulatory reform, high business costs?
Halahan: So, we know that Stewart Airport is underutilized and it has been forever. We also know that Westchester County Airport is at capacity. Parking has become a challenge at Westchester County Airport and there is an abundance of parking at Stewart. Both airports are regional in nature so we have to work together so that both airports thrive and serve the Hudson Valley at optimum capacity. We need to partner, similar to the way we approached the 17-Forward-86 initiative where Orange and Sullivan counties worked together. After we come up with a strategy regionally, we have to sit down with the Port Authority in order to start balancing (air travel at Port Authority airports). People want to fly out of Stewart and Westchester. We owe it to our regional residents to make it balanced and affordable with choices of carriers. I’m told that half of the Port Authority Board has never even visited Stewart Airport. That’s unacceptable! The Partnership has invited them several times to host one of its Board meetings at Stewart. We have to get them more engaged because it is such an asset to them and they don’t recognize it.
On the high cost of business, that is a policy issue. The fact is that Orange County is competitive regionally and we are doing OK. Our local taxes are not the problem. It’s the regulations that kill us. We lost our common sense. If we continue to make New York unaffordable for companies to come here, we will continue to watch our numbers go down. The overall business climate is something that we continue to work on with our state leadership. We are hopeful with the new administration. (Governor) Kathy Hochul is a huge small business proponent. She understands small businesses. She understands her challenges too. We hope that we are going to be able to continue to work with her as she has visited Orange County dozens of times—we have a good relationship with her.
Real Estate In-Depth: In looking back on the past 18 months of the pandemic, is there any event or moment that affected the Partnership the most and has there been anything positive to come out of this that you can point to?
Halahan: We (the Orange County Partnership staff) were here until the last possible moment and then had to work from home because we didn’t want to break the rules. The good thing that came out of “the Great Shutdown” is that every one of us over the years had been able to work from a remote location, myself included. We had to learn Zoom and Microsoft Teams and all of those other things, but we were no strangers to remote technology and we were very productive right out the gate. Thank God we have a very diverse group. We have young people on my team who set us up right away and made sure we were cross trained. I’m proud to admit that the very first day that we were allowed to come back to the office, every member of this team wanted to.
So, that is what I learned. I learned from my team that a) we took the proper precautions, b) they wanted to be here at the office so I didn’t have to fight some of the challenges other organizations did and c) we worked well together from home. Look, does anyone get an eight-hour day from their staff when they are working from home? My team proved it is possible. I think that we were highly effective during that time. We started our new newsletter during that time, which was probably one of the most significant things we have done to engage our local community. The newsletter has been well received and we get a lot of feedback from our readers. We were able to connect our investors and our local business community by continuing to feed them information that impacts their bottom line…
Also, the second the governor gave the okay, we resumed in-person events. We had our MVP (Most Valuable Partner) event, which the attendance numbers equaled 2019 as did our income from that event. The Partnership has never been one to hold golf outings or outdoor events, but this past May we held our first Golf Outing and sold out two golf courses. We have already sold all of the sponsorships for the 2022 Golf Outing. It was that successful! Now we have three golf courses reserved for 2022. It was not only fun, we were able to get people together safely, they made business connections and they had fun! It was a home run!
We have our Investor Breakfast coming up and judging from the RSVPs we have received so far, a good amount of people have signed up for it. We will see if the (Delta) variant continues to haunt us. But, the numbers are going down, people are planning ahead for events, we are selling sponsorships and we believe our Annual event in December at the Barn at Villa Venezia will be a smashing success.