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Downtowns

From left, Minority Leader Jason Richberg, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey. Photo from Bellone’s Flickr page

After years of disruption to local downtowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Suffolk County is pushing toward economic recovery and revitalization.

A 2021 Rauch Foundation study found that 38% of downtown food and beverage with retail businesses lost a projected 50% or more in revenue in 2020 compared to 2019. The same study outlined the compounding effects of impacts of “auto-oriented development, the emergence of online shopping, and, more recently, the economic shock from COVID” as impacting the viability of Long Island’s downtowns.

County officials gathered at the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge Tuesday, Sept. 5, announcing the JumpSMART Small Business Downtown Investment Program. Through JumpSMART, the county will set aside $25 million in grants for projects supporting downtown areas’ growth and vibrancy. This funding comes from the $286 million the county received in federal COVID-19 funding through the American Rescue Plan Act.

“Our main streets, our downtowns, are critical to the long-term success of our region,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D). “As we continue to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic … it is essential that we provide the necessary support” to downtowns.

The county executive said the funding offered through this JumpSMART program would carry out several simultaneous economic development goals, namely expanding housing options and bolstering small business districts.

“Our downtowns are the places where we can create the kind of housing diversity that we know our region needs and that will support, very importantly, small businesses,” he said. “They are also the place where we can create a mix of uses that would reduce car trips and traffic on our roadways.”

The funds earmarked through the program, Bellone said, would also promote various nonprofits and cultural entities throughout the county’s main street business districts: “The JumpSMART program aims to support and invigorate our main street communities by providing to different private and not-for-profit organizations, such as arts and cultural institutions,” Bellone added.

Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature and a former trustee of the Village of Lindenhurst, described the downtown revitalization efforts of his village.

“It started with bringing transportation-oriented development into our village,” he said. “We now have that vibrancy down there and young people coming in.”

“We have many downtowns that are in the process of rebuilding, restructuring or revitalizing. This grant program will go a long way toward making sure that we meet all the needs of our downtowns,” McCaffrey added.

Minority Leader Jason Richberg (D-West Babylon) outlined various areas of emphasis for investments in downtowns, such as transit-oriented development, beautification and infrastructure modernization.

“These downtown investments bring people to our communities … and economic development,” he said. “If we keep investing in our small businesses, our economy will grow,” adding, “That will raise our incomes in Suffolk County and bring more people to buy our homes, live in our buildings and use our community.”

In launching this application portal, Bellone said the county government is seeking “big proposals that make a positive impact on our communities.”

A selection panel of administration officials and county legislators will decide on the applications and appropriations.

The application portal is live and will remain open until close of business on Sept. 29. For more information or to apply, visit suffolkcountyny.gov/jumpsmart.

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Local and state officials have long talked about electrification of the Port Jefferson rail line, but missed deadlines and other issues may push any real project back decades. File photo

By Dave Kapell

One of the strategies being widely discussed as a means of revitalizing the Long Island economy is the creation of transit-oriented developments, especially in downtowns served by the Long Island Rail Road. These developments are much needed and would serve multiple purposes — increasing housing options, enhancing downtown areas and providing places to live and work with easy access to and from New York City. But they are not new to Long Island. Greenport on the North Fork was a transit-oriented development in the mid-19th century and thus underscores the potential that this long-standing tradition still offers Long Island, if we can focus on mobility.

Ironically, when the LIRR’s track to Greenport was laid in 1844, it was not to provide transit access to New York City but to connect New York with Boston, because the technology did not yet exist to bridge Connecticut’s rivers. Greenport was, and still is, the terminus for the LIRR Main Line —aka the Ronkonkoma Branch — but its fundamental role at the time was to provide a transit connection to Boston by ferry. It was a two-way street for people and for commerce.

In the mid-19th century the only way to travel by train from New York City to Boston was by taking the LIRR from Brooklyn to Greenport, transferring there to a ferry to cross the Long Island Sound to Connecticut and then resuming train travel to Boston. Greenport, therefore, evolved naturally as a transit-oriented development with a thriving downtown that was created during this period with housing as well as jobs, commerce and robust population growth. That’s still a central appeal for the concept today, and it’s especially timely.

New York City is both the financial capital of the world and a powerful magnet for youth and talent. That makes it all the more important that Long Island build upon its proximity to the city by expanding transit access to its dynamic economy and the jobs it offers to Long Island residents and, as importantly, the talent pool it offers to support Long Island businesses. It’s also important to recognize that young people are much less inclined to drive cars than previous generations.

But there are two keys to maximizing that access. First, we need to make it easier to live and work near LIRR stations. The good news there is that the Long Island Index and the Regional Plan Association determined in 2010 that a total of 8,300 acres are available for infill development within a half-mile of LIRR stations and downtowns. That means that transit-oriented developments can enhance downtown areas while reducing pressure for development on Long Island’s iconic and treasured rural landscape.

Second, we must enhance the LIRR infrastructure to make reverse commuting — from New York City to Long Island — more available. On the 9.8-mile stretch of the LIRR Main Line between Floral Park and Hicksville, we’re still using the same system of two tracks that were laid in 1844 when the Island population was 50,000. Today, 171 years later, we have the same two tracks and a population of 3 million. Six LIRR branches now converge on this bottleneck, turning it into a one-way street during the peak morning rush, making reverse commuting impossible.

At present, we cannot compete successfully with other suburban areas in the metropolitan region where reverse commuting by transit is readily available. The jobs and young people that we want are, therefore, going elsewhere. It defies common sense to think that Long Island can thrive in the 21st century with this critical defect in our transit system left in place.

The solution is to expand the current LIRR system of tracks to support Long Island’s economy, just as we did in 1844 when the track to Greenport was laid. Only now, we need to add a third track — or, as some call it, a Fast Track — to relieve the bottleneck between Floral Park and Hicksville. It is strangling the Long Island economy and, according to a recent report by the Long Island Index, building the Fast Track would relieve the problem and generate 14,000 new jobs, $5.6 billion in additional gross regional product, and $3 billion in additional personal income by 2035, 10 years after its completion.

The Long Island Rail Road remains an extraordinary resource, but it needs to be thought of again as a two-way street. We also need to think beyond the auto-dependent suburban model to a future where young people, who are the workforce of that future, have the option to live on Long Island or in the city and have easy transit access to jobs in either place.

Greenport knows the value of transit-oriented development arguably as well as any community on Long Island, because ferry, bus and rail facilities continue to power its reputation as a walkable village where people can live, shop, be entertained and get to work without driving. If Long Island now seizes on this time-honored track to success, the concept may well become fundamental to the revitalization of the region’s economy as well.

Dave Kapell, a resident of Greenport, served as mayor from 1994 to 2007. He is now a consultant to the Rauch Foundation, which publishes the Long Island Index.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone file photo

By Julianne Cuba

At his fourth State of the County address, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone began by ensuring the county government and public that he has never been more optimistic about the current state of the region and its future.

At the William H. Rogers Legislative Building in Hauppauge on March 26, Bellone (D) also took time commending the county legislature for successfully and efficiently reducing government by more than 10 percent — an initiative that will save Suffolk County taxpayers more than $100 million a year. The county executive announced that when he took office three years ago, the unemployment rate for Suffolk County stood at 8.2 percent. As of the end of 2014, it stands at 4.2 percent.

However, Bellone continued, “I’m not here to talk about where we are today. I am much more interested in talking about where we are going and what the future could look like.”

In order to combat what Bellone said he considers the fundamental issue of our time — a two-decade trend of losing young, qualified and educated people to other regions of the county — he pointed to the county’s economic development plan, Connect Long Island.

“We cannot reach our economic potential, we cannot build a more prosperous future, if we are not a region that can attract and retain the young, high-knowledge, high-skill workers necessary to build an innovative economy,” he said.

Connect Long Island will make progress on the five crucial issues that are driving young people away, which, according to Bellone include high costs, lack of transportation options, lack of quality affordable rental housing, lack of affordable housing in desired environments and a lack of high-paying jobs.

“We build walkable, transit-oriented downtowns that have strong, public transportation links to one another and to universities, research centers, job centers and parks and open space. Effectively, what Connect LI will do is to build a quality of life ecosystem that will be attractive to young people,” he said.

But, unfortunately, Bellone said, the lack of sewage systems in many of Suffolk County’s downtown areas — which are critical parts of the region’s future — is limiting the opportunity for growth.

Suffolk County’s sewage problem impacts not only the regions economic development but its water quality as well. The water quality issue was one of the three major problems on which Bellone focused.

“We have 360,000 unsewered homes in Suffolk County — that is more than the entire state of New Jersey. Those 360,000 homes represent, potentially, 360,000 customers. So I’m happy to report that four companies donated 19 systems, which we are putting into the ground to test under local conditions. At the same time, with the leadership of Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst and Dr. Samuel Stanley, [Stony Brook University] will begin a new program to identify the next generation of septic technology, with the goal of providing better, more cost-efficient options for Suffolk County residents,” Bellone said.

Bellone announced that with the help of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), the county’s state and federal partners, and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), he was able to secure $383 million for one of the largest investments in clean water infrastructure in more than 40 years — the Reclaim Our Water Initiative.

Legislator and Minority Leader Kevin McCaffrey (R) said that he agrees 100 percent with everything the county executive said in regard to economic development and improving drinking water. However, he added that the county’s debt must be cut and the legislature needs increased oversight.

“We must ask ourselves if we are going to control the irresponsible and reckless spending and borrowing, we must become more focused on the county’s ever-increasing debt,” McCaffrey said.  “We must ask ourselves if we want to throw debt on the backs of our children and our grandchildren. It’s time to cut up the credit cards and learn how to live within our means.”