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Economic Development

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) admitted in his 2018 State of the County address last week that our county, our home, remains a constant work in progress. We couldn’t agree more. There needs to be action taken to push for more concrete progress now, instead of just talking about the potential Suffolk has.

Many of the quality-of-life issues addressed by Bellone are no surprise to Long Islanders. The high cost of living and economic stress it creates, need for affordable housing, improvements to public transportation to reduce traffic, and tackling our county’s narcotic drug abuse and gang violence are daily issues we struggle with. And these aren’t new problems.

Bellone first recognized that “young people have been leaving our region at record rates for 20 years in search of opportunity and in search of a place to live other than their parents basements” in his 2012 State of the County address. Enrollment in most of the county’s school districts is dwindling as families are moving off Long Island to pursue their version of the American Dream.

The true question is how much progress has been made toward meeting housing demands, creating opportunities for better-paying jobs, improving the Long Island Rail Road and other public transportation while addressing crime in the last six years?

A Connect Long Island master plan to construct new transit-oriented housing centers was presented by Bellone in 2015. While we’ve seen ground broken on Port Jefferson’s Uptown Funk project, key plans like the Ronkonkoma hub, Huntington Station’s revitalization, Heartland Town Square in Brentwood off Commack Road and other promised projects are either just getting underway or largely still lofty ideals sketched on paper.

Residents have spoken out against many of these planned housing developments in rallies at town halls and roadway intersections. Location is key, and we are tired of seeing open green space slated for development when there’s plenty of vacant storefronts and zombie houses in residential areas.

Let’s not forget the affordable aspect. Recently opened housing projects in Huntington Station are quoting a rent of more than $2,300 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, when the median income for Suffolk workers is about $41,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census 2012-2016 American Community Survey. That’s not far off from apartment costs in parts of New York City, which don’t require a commute.

Electrification of the LIRR’s eastern tracks – including the Huntington to Port Jefferson stretch – has been talked about by the county since 2015. As of this April, town leaders including Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) and Town of Huntington Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) are still writing letters to state and county officials begging for a feasibility study to be started. As for the promise of a rapid transit bus system, a reliable system has still not materialized while many of the line stops have been closed.

High-paying jobs that offer opportunity for future growth, reasonably priced housing and solutions to roadway gridlock need to be put into place to make Suffolk County’s future bright, as Bellone first promised when taking office.

We are willing to commend what appears to be progress in reducing narcotic drug abuse and gang violence, as early crime stats for 2018 are trending in the right direction. But we must remain vigilant.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone delivers his State of the County address May 24 at Newfield High School in Selden. Photo by Alex Petroski

In his annual State of the County address, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) touted recent initiatives while also keeping an eye on both the near and distant future. The executive spoke for more than an hour from the auditorium stage at Newfield High School in Selden in front of a crowd of county, town and village lawmakers, students and others.

“I can tell you that the state of Suffolk County — this amazing place that we all call home — is strong,” Bellone said. “I remain committed to making Suffolk County a model for effective and efficient government, a government that is as good as the people it is there to represent.  We can build a stronger economic future, we can protect our water quality, we can transform this government, and we can do big things in Suffolk County and on Long Island if we do them together.”

Though he admitted the state of the county government, “remains a work in progress,” Bellone called on both political parties to look past the issues that divide them and remember the things that unite Americans. He honored the four Suffolk County native airmen of the 106th Rescue Wing, based out of Westhampton, who died as a result of a helicopter crash while carrying out a mission in Iraq in March, including Commack resident Master Sgt. Christopher Raguso and Port Jefferson Station resident Staff Sgt. Dashan Briggs.

“These are the individuals that make our country great,” Bellone said.

The executive spent a large chunk of his speech on public safety and the work of the Suffolk County Police Department, specifically a decreasing rate of opioid related overdoses and violent crime and reported that last year 222 arrests were made in connection with the violent gang MS-13.

While discussing public safety, Bellone detailed the recently implemented SHARE initiative. The program — Sharing to Help Access Remote Entry — allows participating school districts to connect closed circuit security camera systems directly to SCPD, who can access surveillance footage in real time in the event of active shooter situations on school campuses.

He gave a nod to the students locally and across the country organizing marches and walkouts to protest for stricter gun control laws in the wake of more high-casualty school shooting incidents around the U.S.

“It has been inspiring to see young people speak out on issues, organize rallies, run for school board and demand more of their elected officials,” he said. “Your voices will be heard.”

The county executive made numerous references to the state of government and politics in Washington D.C., specifically in making a pledge that he and his colleagues “will not rest” until the State and Local Tax deduction, which was repealed as part of the federal tax overhaul bill passed in 2017, were restored. The elimination of the deduction stands to cost residents in high-property tax areas — like Suffolk County — thousands of dollars more than previous years.

Bellone stressed the importance of economic development through downtown revitalization projects — like upper Port Jefferson’s “Uptown Funk” plan — and streamlining public transportation around these hubs as a means to foster an environment in which young people can afford to live in Suffolk County going forward through the creation of quality jobs.

“We spend a lot of money educating our kids here,” the county executive said. “Too many of them have left for other parts of the country, where they are helping to power their regional economies. We have to stop that.”

Bellone called water quality a critical issue for all Suffolk County residents. The county has made funding available for septic system improvements for homeowners, which would help reduce the amount of nitrogen polluting Long Island’s waterways. He also recently implemented a recycling program for six county school districts.

Rob Gitto of The Gitto Group, representative from the Long Island Rail Road Ryan Attard, grant writer Nicole Christian, Tony Gitto of The Gitto Group, Leg. Kara Hahn, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, village Mayor Margot Garant, village Trustee Larry LaPointe, Trustee Bruce Miller, and Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright during a groundbreaking for an upper Port Jefferson revitalization project May 9. Photo by Kyle Barr

After years of planning upper Port’s redevelopment to deal with blighted buildings, traffic and a lack of parking space, Port Jefferson Village officials are finally ready to say, “Don’t believe me, just watch.”

As part of the village’s revitalization efforts — a project dubbed “Uptown Funk” — village, Suffolk County and Brookhaven Town officials held a groundbreaking ceremony May 9 for a new parking lot in the space at the corner of Texaco Avenue and Linden Place. The lot should allow for another 74 parking spaces, largely for Long Island Rail Road commuters using the Port Jefferson train station.

“The village is thrilled to partner with the county, Empire State Development and the Long Island Rail Road on improvements in upper Port to enhance pedestrian connectivity and safety, revitalize blighted commercial properties, and promote safe living and economic growth,” Mayor Margot Garant said.

The revitalization of upper Port is part of the Connect LI project of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D). The plan behind the initiative is to use both existing and new public transportation options to connect people to commercial centers and main streets as in Port Jefferson.

“This is a model of what we need to be doing around the region,” Bellone said. “My administration is committed to providing funding to assist our towns and villages with these revitalization projects. The project we broke ground on today is a major step in continuing our efforts to make Suffolk County a great place to live, work and raise a family.”

Phase one of the project will cost $850,000 to be funded by grants from the county’s Jumpstart program and other financial contributions. Along with the parking lot the first phase of the project will improve sidewalks that lead to the train station from The Hills at Port Jefferson apartment complex.

Phase two of the project will include a renovation of the north, east and south LIRR parking lots with new pavement, lighting and plaza entryway.

Phase three will create “Station Street,” a new one-way road that will provide access to the new renovated parking lots. Garant said the road should also reduce congestion on Main Street and allow for smoother access into the train station parking lots.

Part of the hope for the project is that students coming from Stony Brook University and other commuters will help create interest in the area, which in turn should incentivize businesses to invest in upper Port and remedy the blighted property seen on Main Street, according to Garant.

“We want feet on the street,” Garant said.

Last year Nicole Christian, a consultant at law firm HB Solutions and grant writer for the village, helped apply for several grants for the Uptown Funk project. Last year Port Jefferson Village was awarded $250,000 in Jumpstart money to start plans on the project and the village also applied for a grant from the Empire State Development Corporation, a state entity, for $500,000.

“Empire State Development is excited to support this roadway realignment that will foster this transit-oriented development and revitalize this community to create a true linkage from upper Port Jefferson to the waterfront,” Howard Zemsky, ESD president, said in an email.

Part of the purpose of the new parking lot is also to help facilitate foot traffic from The Hills at Port Jefferson to the train station across the street. “All of the apartments in two separate buildings, which were completed in 2016, have already been rented out and there is already a long wait list to get in,” said Tony Gitto of The Gitto Group, the real estate development company behind development of the apartment complex, during the event.

The Town of Brookhaven and Port Jefferson Village worked with Gitto and his company to create the two-building complex. To incentivize the creation of the apartment complex, Brookhaven Industrial Development Agency, an arm of municipalities dedicated to funding projects to stimulate job creation and economic growth, gave Gitto and his company sales tax exemptions on construction items, a mortgage tax exemption and a 10-year property tax abatement.

Gitto said that they provided money toward the funding of the new parking lot.

“They hired the contractors and we made a financial contribution,” Gitto said.

This post was updated May 15.

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Business owners mingle at the incubator showcase last Thursday morning inside one of the research centers at Stony Brook University. Photo by Phil Corso

Stony Brook University graduate Frank Zinghini originally started his software vulnerability management company Code Dx out of Northport, but he has since setup shop in a more “incubated” environment, thanks to the university’s office of economic development.

Now, he and his team don’t even need to pick up a phone to chat with like-minded entrepreneurs — all they need to do is poke their heads next door.

“We need engineering help, and we’re looking to the university for that,” said Brianne O’Brien, director of sales and training at Code Dx. “It’s amazing the amount of attention we have here.”

Code Dx was one of nearly 40 booths cascaded throughout the second floor of the campus’s Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology building on Thursday, as its office of economic development flexed its muscles at an incubator showcase. Businesses did a lot of sharing throughout the day — of their stories, but also of mentorship, advice, expertise and more.

Yacov Shamash, vice president for economic development at the university, said the goal was to link the academic and research resources of the campus with the greater economic needs of Long Island and New York State. Much like a mother bird sitting over her egg before it hatches, the university has been “incubating” businesses in various centers across the island with an eye on tomorrow.

Many of those businesses that blossom underneath the incubator umbrella explore various facets of science and technology and end up employing Stony Brook University grads and other North Shore natives before branching out, the vice president said.

“It is a wonderful opportunity for learning and hiring,” he said. “It’s a positive thing for Long Island — no question.”

Ann-Marie Scheidt, director of economic development at the university, said last Thursday was the university’s first incubator showcase, showing off just what kinds of innovation occurred on a daily basis there and just how diverse it could be. It is that diversity that she said was essential when confronting the region’s problems of tomorrow.

“As they grow up, we provide them with the help they need. But they also become connected with other local groups doing business around them,” Shamash said in an interview. “Our goal is to embed them in the Long Island community and to create great jobs.”

One of the incubated companies took the spotlight that afternoon as a “graduate” of the university’s business incubator program. Codagenix Inc. spent the past three years “incubating” at the campus and has grown to a point where they were able to move to a larger space in Melville, and North Shore lawmakers made sure they were there to send them off.

Yi-Xian Qin of QB Sonic Inc. smiled from ear-to-ear as he shared the medical advancements of his incubated business, which was working to develop a noninvasive ultrasound simulator to address common injuries like hip fractures. He said it was the incubation that actually helped his company thrive at such an early stage in its first year.

“The incubator is flexible,” he said. “You can be a huge company or occupy a small office. Either way, it lets you meet with other companies. It’s very good for the other start-ups.”

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