Category: Business

After earning $10M from NYS, Westbury looks to cash in on downtown boom

Originally published at The Changing Face of Long Island.

For over 20 years of his career, Eric Alexander, a prominent Long Island community developer, sat in on meetings, listening to local Main Street representatives across the island linger over the stiff competition from their indoor shopping rivals.

“They’d always say, ‘we have to be more like the mall, we have to be more like the mall’,” Alexander remembered. Then he laughed. “Now the malls want to look more like downtown.”

Due to the growth of internet shopping ( sales revenue increased 1170 percent from 2006 to 2016, according to Statista), experts say there is a shift in commercial preference from malls and big-box stores to downtowns, which have become cultural centers and restaurant scenes.

“Shopping [isn’t] going out of style in the burbs,” Lisa Schamess, communications manager of Build a Better Burb, a national nonprofit group advocating new urbanism, said. “But its character is changing.”

In Westbury, a Nassau County village, the local government was awarded $10 million in funding to revitalize their downtown last year, as part of an annual grant New York State initiative (called the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, or DRI) launched by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2016. The initiative is the largest public aid program for downtown growth toward Long Island in state history.

Click to access interactive graphic.

The strategic investment plan, created by a local committee of Westbury business leaders, includes funding for rezoning a new residential area near the Long Island Rail Road, improvements to the Westbury Community and Recreation Centers, and $4.4 million toward streetscape beautification.

“We are in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment waiting for the state to sign off on some of the projects already approved so we can start spending some of the money allotted,” Tom Verni of the Westbury Business Improvement District (BID) said. “We expect that to be done by the end of the year or shortly after the new year then start rolling some of the programs and initiatives out by the spring or summer of 2018.”

One of the goals of the downtown improvements is to increase restaurant sales. Of a $33 million dollar sales surplus in Westbury restaurants, $32 million of it can be attributed to Old Country Road, which is not downtown, according to data provided by the Westbury BID. There is “unmet demand” for restaurants on Post Avenue, Westbury’s Main Street, according to the investment plan.

Food and beverage locations outnumber retail stores 35 to 31 in downtown Westbury, a margin that is expected to grow in upcoming years, according to the BID. This trend aligns with Long Island’s overall data: employment for cooks and bartenders is expected to increase by 29.8 and 26.9 percent, respectively, according to state labor data. For context, overall job growth is projected to be 11.1 percent.

“Hard goods aren’t coming back,” Alexander, who serves as the director of Vision Long Island, said. “It’s not like the shoe store is coming back to Main Street. It’s really restaurants and bars that are driving this growth.”

Growth of the arts is another major component to the project in Westbury. Funds from the state grant are being allocated to house a permanent home for the Westbury Council for the Arts, which had previously functioned nomadically.

“Ideally we’d like to have a performance space,” Maureen Baranov, vice president of the council, said. “In the basement, we would have a black box theatre, and on the main level, studios where we provide classes. Jewelry-making classes, pottery classes, art classes. Just to bring art and culture to the community.”

The Westbury Council for the Arts, founded four years ago, is heavily involved in the revitalization efforts. Peter Cavallaro, the village’s mayor is a founding member of the council. Residents of Westbury “consistently expressed support” for the arts in early DRI informational meetings, according to the strategic investment plan. Money from the state will help build murals and public art along Post Avenue. The council also sponsored, for the first time, an annual farmer’s market at Piazzo Ernesto Strada, a small park in the village.

Click to access audio slideshow.

“We had 16 straight weeks of sun,” Colleen Locascio, one of the arts council board directors, said. “Never any rain. It was an absolute miracle.”

Three miles to the east, the hamlet of Hicksville won the same $10 million grant this year and is in the preliminary stages of determining their distribution of funds. In its application to the state, Hicksville pitched reconstruction efforts along the LIRR station, the busiest outside the city.

“There are 3,000 people that live within walking distance of the station, and they want to see a true downtown there,” Alexander said.

In the meantime, zoning codes are being written by the town of Oyster Bay, which governs Hicksville, state and local officials are coming together to discuss different ways to efficiently use the money, and planning committees are meeting on a weekly basis.

But while Hicksville and Westbury are receiving lump sums of money, most downtowns across Long Island are not so lucky.

The state allocates one state grant to each region of the state, which can become proportionally unfair. Long Island, whose population is 2.86 million (not counting Brooklyn and Queens), had 21 applicant villages in 2017, according to a state DRI official. For comparison, two other regions of New York State, the North Country and the Mohawk Valley, of 428 thousand and 622 thousand people, had three and seven applicants, respectively.

“We pay 21 percent of the state’s taxes, and here we’re getting 10 percent of the payoff,” Alexander said. “It’s kind of in line with most state programs toward Long Island. We’re contribute more to the state than the state contributes to us. That’s just kind of how it is. Having said that, before this grant, there was never any direct state money for Long Island downtowns. So I applaud the governor for that.”

While other villages across Nassau and Suffolk Counties have to wait their turn for government action, Westbury is thrilled at the opportunity to fulfill its own downtown vision.

“I have so much invested in this community. I care very deeply about this community,” Locascio said. “I want to see it soar.”

Patchogue telescope business relocates to Stony Brook after 32 years

By Skyler Gilbert and Brittany Bernstein

Camera Concepts & Telescope Solutions, the largest telescope store on Long Island, will hold a grand opening this Saturday to celebrate the business’s move to Stony Brook Village after spending 32 years in Patchogue.

The store had outgrown its previous location in Patchogue, owner Jeff Norwood said. He chose to move to a place with a larger showroom to display an array of telescopes, instead of housing the majority of its pieces in basement storage.

Much to Norwood’s chagrin, he was unable to find a reasonably priced vacancy in Patchogue, which has experienced downtown revitalization and business growth over the last 15 years.

“I was in Patchogue when there were only five stores on Main Street. It was a ghost town,” Norwood said. “Now it’s thriving. But along with it thriving, landlords charge four or five times the rent. I had a lease in Patchogue that was very reasonable, but when I looked elsewhere for other locations, it was ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.”

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The grand opening this weekend will feature a solar viewing on the Stony Brook Village lawn during the daytime, a meteor shower viewing during the evening and stargazing at night. Patrons will be allowed to use store equipment.

There will be speakers, live music and food vendors at the event, which is expected to be attended by several astronomy and science clubs, including the Custer Institute, and professors and students from Stony Brook University and Suffolk Community College.

“We’re giving away thousands of dollars of prizes, door prize style,” store manager Robert Becker said. “The prizes are from donations from manufacturers. It should be a good time.”

As niche of a store as Camera Concepts is (one of the 30 largest dealers for telescopes and high-end optics in the nation), several of its customers from Patchogue have traveled across Long Island to make a purchase at the new location, making relocation less of an issue than it would be for stores of other specializations.

Once a business whose overhead costs could be covered by camera film development alone, Camera Concepts invested heavily into telescope sales in the late 1990s, when it recognized the digital age would hinder its camera revenue.

“When digital cameras came out, it killed the old business models, since the big stores, the Wal-Marts and whatnot, were selling them,” Becker said. “We had to reinvent ourselves. Astronomy is 70 to 80 percent of our business now.”

Today, a majority of the store’s sales are done online. Instead of competing against other photo shops, once a staple in every Long Island village, the company is competing with retailers across the country and around the globe.

“If this was 10-12 years ago, we would have never moved, because we were so dependent on the local business,” Norwood said. “Our internet business has increased exponentially. A lot of our business is done online. It almost doesn’t matter where we are. I always tell people, I could do this out of my garage if I really wanted to”

Apple farmers fear early-season warm spells could doom another crop

Originally published at The Long Islander

An unseasonably warm could cause the New York State apple crop to reach an advanced stage of growth earlier than usual, resulting in perhaps a severe loss of crops.

Several orchard owners, including one on Long Island, have expressed concern that the temperatures — over 60-degrees Fahrenheit in some locations — will make trees lose their “winter hardiness” and become vulnerable to a late frost.

These fears come after a disappointing 2016 season in which over 90 percent of the state’s apple crop was decimated due to sudden cold spells late last spring.

“The blossoms will come early and then the real problem is that if we have a normal freeze in May we can lose crops,” Joy Crist of Crist Brothers Orchard in Walden, New York said. “The recent weather is really setting up for a crop loss that might come at a later time when the trees cannot protect themselves from the cold.”

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Trees are not yet bloomed but a continuation of mild temperatures could bring flowering sooner than preferred.

Once matured, a temperature below 28-degrees could annihilate an entire crop, multiple farmers said. A low yearly yield due to weather is not uncommon in fruit farms, but would be especially difficult given the disappointing 2016 season.

“Last year we had a bad crop due to a late frost,” Autumn Piazza, an orchardist at Fishkill Farms in Hopewell Junction, said. “We were supposed to get double the produce we had the year before, but since we’re falling into this pattern of warmer winter weather, we are at risk of losing a good chunk of our crops.”

Piazza recalled that the situation escalated to such a point last year that the orchard set up “mini bon fires” to prevent blossomed trees from freezing in the winter and spring. If the weather proceeds in a similar manner, such precautions could be taken again.

On Long Island, the concern is a bit mitigated due to a more moderate climate than the “fringe temperatures” of the cold upstate.

But Lou Amsler, the owner of Richter’s Orchard in Northport, one of only two apple farms in central Long Island, is cautiously optimistic about his crop this year, provided that temperature changes are slow and minimal.

“With this hot weather, it needs to cool off gradually,” Amsler explained. “If it cools gradually, the trees can safely go back into their dormant mode.”

Quick weather fluctuations can cause several adversities to apple growth. Flowers can be killed outright. Damaged seeds can cause pollination problems, which can lead to deformities, rigid skin or “frost rings” on the fruits.

Some traditional southern-grown pitted fruits are more susceptible to cold snaps than apples, the chief fruit grown in New York.

“Our apple trees are okay as of now,” Piazza said. “But our cherries, plums, pears, peaches and stone fruit are beginning to bud so we could potentially be losing them yet again.”

For apples, worries are still limited this early in the season, but orchard growers are keeping a keen eye on the weather forecast for the upcoming months.