On Thursday, September 20th, New Rochelle brought together several dozen commercial brokers, investors, property owners and developers from throughout the region for a unique day of activities devoted to presenting current and future business opportunities in our city. This special event, which involved several months of careful planning, was organized under the auspices of the Westchester County Association, which serves as a major business and development advocate.
Attendees began the day at 145 Huguenot Street, one of New Rochelle’s most successful office buildings, and concluded with a luncheon at the Top of the Roc in the Avalon building. In between, City officials narrated a bus tour that stretched from the shoreline all the way to Quaker Ridge Road, and which was planned to encompass many key points of interest and/or commercial prospects.
The feedback from business people and potential investors was very positive, with many professing a much better understanding of the assets and opportunities within New Rochelle. The great weather didn’t hurt either. Our Development staff will, of course, follow up on the specific ideas that were broached and on the new relationships that were established.
There is no silver bullet when it comes to promoting economic development. Rather, successful communities must employ a varied and multi-layered approach. Outreach and marketing of this kind can serve as one piece of a good comprehensive strategy.
I express my sincere thanks to the members of the City staff and the Westchester County Association team who did the hard work of putting everything together. They did a terrific job.
During the luncheon, I was asked to deliver the “keynote” address, a term which makes it sound a little fancier than it was. I chose to focus on the unrealized opportunities in New Rochelle, while also acknowledging our challenges. In case you are interested, the text of my remarks, minus a few introductions and ad-libbed jokes and anecdotes, follows below.
I hope you enjoyed your tour and your lunch, and I hope that what you learned today will give you ample reason to come back.
When people hear from a mayor at events like this, there is an expectation of salesmanship. I get that. It’s part of the job for any mayor. And if you believe deeply in a community and its virtues, as I do, then it is easy to sing its praises.
But I have never been comfortable ignoring challenges, as though they did not exist. And even if I was inclined to proceed in that fashion, this is a sophisticated audience that has a grasp of reality; plus you each have two eyes in your head, and, whatever the positive tone of the narration on today’s tour, you also surely observed problems.
So I want to begin in, perhaps, a counter-intuitive way, by acknowledging forthrightly the obstacles in New Rochelle.
• A near-absence of large corporate anchors that can, as you know, serve as pillars for economic activity.
• Social and economic conditions that affect a significant percentage of our residents, many of whom depend on public services or subsidies.
• A location on Long Island Sound which is, in most ways, a valuable asset, except for one: by definition, it reduces the population and spending power in proximity to our core commercial areas – nobody lives in the Sound.
• And a sense of change that is still unfolding and unfinished, with evidence of renewal sitting cheek to jowl, block to block with evidence of continuing distress.
In short, we are not White Plains. White Plains in the past 70 years has done a better job than New Rochelle of realizing its commercial potential – in part through luck, in part through leadership, in part through location, in part through past urban renewal activities that would be untenable today. There or in some other cities like Stamford, you can find an impressive collection of existing commercial establishments.
In New Rochelle, a greater percentage of the ore is still in the mine. And even though we do have many opportunities for each of you that are ready at this moment, other opportunities are less immediately apparent – they require a degree of creative vision and foresight.
And so here is where my argument turns. Because in spite of, or maybe it would be better to say because of these challenges, the upside possibilities for investment in New Rochelle and the value one can obtain in return are, I would affirm, better than in any other community of Westchester.
Let me explain what I mean on three levels: starting at 20,000 feet with the broadest picture, and then working our way down to finer grain specifics.
That broadest picture requires us to think about national growth patterns. The American population is expected to hit about 440 million by 2050. More than 100 million new Americans. We are accustomed to thinking of the Sun Belt as the booming population center, and that’s been true for most of our lives. But those days are over, and they are not likely to come back.
In fact, the northeast is better positioned for growth than any other region. Why?
Energy Efficiency: We have comparatively dense and compact cities that are more energy efficient and less carbon intensive.
Transportation: The northeast has the infrastructure to provide robust transportation and commuting alternatives to the automobile, increasingly important because of energy constraints and consumer preferences.
Public Policy: The public subsidies, direct and indirect, that supported the boom in single family homes have proven unsustainable, which means that in-fill development in urban cores and inner rings will be more viable moving forward than new subdivisions at the metropolitan periphery.
Marketability: Younger professionals increasingly place a premium on culture and diversity. I visited Charlotte for the first time a couple of weeks ago. Stayed with friends who live there. They offered a great description that I won’t forget. They said: “Charlotte doesn’t have a soul, but we’re working on it.” Our communities have a soul.
And, most importantly, Climate: Or more specifically, water. Even before the impact of climate change, water supplies in the West were insufficient to support additional population growth. Those pressures are only going to intensify. And we see what has happened in the Midwest and plains this in recent years with devastating droughts – trends that most scientists regard as a foretaste of more to come. The northeast had abundant water, and water supplies will be increasingly the essential foundation for growth.
Now, all of those factors will shape the New York metro area as a whole. But if we descend from 20,000 feet to about 10,000, we see that New Rochelle is particularly well positioned to take advantage of these trends.
First, we have mass transit access in heart of downtown. I would argue that, in the long run, this is a critical advantage over office parks served exclusively by the automobile. In fact, it is in New Rochelle that the lines servicing Grand Central and Penn Station diverge.
Beyond commuter lines, we have the only northeast corridor Amtrak stop in Westchester. We are close to every regional airport. And our location on the Sound gives us access to any water taxi system that may be created down the road.
So, unparalleled reach for employers, workers, shoppers, everybody. And 90% of that exists right now, straight out of the box, no assembly required.
Second, We meet the cultural diversity and energy efficiency tests that make urbanized areas attractive, but we still have significant growth potential in our urban core. This is a difference, at least of some degree, with White Plains and Stamford and others, which are more fully built-out.
Third, a diversity of housing stock that makes New Rochelle unusually accessible to folks at almost every income level.
Lastly, building blocks of community stability that are not necessarily apparent from a look at commercial centers alone.
• Wealth levels that are well above average. There are more households earning in excess of $200,000 per year in New Rochelle than there are in Scarsdale. More in New Rochelle than in Bronxville, Larchmont and Pelham Manor combined. Socio-economic diversity to complement our cultural diversity.
• Neighborhoods that have history and charm and what the planners call as “sense of place.” We’ll be 325 years old next year. Each era has left its mark in New Rochelle’s physical and human fabric, and those qualities cannot be artificially engineered.
• Arts & culture that are woven into the city’s identify. This weekend, we will have our annual ArtsFest, featuring more than 30 venues all around town, including live-work loft space and industrial arts fabrication.
• Three colleges that serve as centers for employment and engines of upward mobility.
• And a school system that I will stack against any other. By the way, when you are evaluating our public schools (and I say this to parents, as well as business leaders), don’t just look at averages, because they do not tell the whole story. Remember: in the same way that our community as a whole can accommodate almost anyone, the school system is also built to support almost any kind of student. The fact is that New Rochelle offers more AP classes than any system in Westchester. And New Rochelle had more admissions to the Ivy League than any other system in Westchester.
So there are reasons why our tour was not confined to the central business district alone. It’s not that we expect you to make some investment in New Rochelle High School, or open up a business in the Wykagyl Park or Beechmont or Sans Souci or Residence Park neighborhoods. But those assets surely impact the viability of a business investment anywhere in New Rochelle, because they speak to the qualities and future of the city as a whole.
So, finally, we get to the ground level. And at this level, I want to make the essential point that progress is not just about the hand dealt to us by geography and history, good or bad. It’s also about the choices we make, the policies we set, and the foundations we lay in preparation for the next wave of opportunities.
By this ground level standard, I am very proud of what our team has done and is doing.
You’ve seen during the course of the tour some of the tangible physical accomplishments – not least this very building. And you have also seen some of the specific sites, extending from here in the central business district, up the North Avenue corridor and across to the shoreline, that are ripe now for renewal.
But I am not talking just about specific sites. I am talking about the very structure of policy-making and administration – all oriented toward promoting sustainable, intelligent investment.
• Zoning that provides a real return on investment, and that contains sufficient flexibility to marry public goods with private returns.
• Staff review that is quick, cooperative and efficient, and that understands the synergy between business and the general community interest.
• And broad planning initiatives and achievements that can maximize all of the advantages that I’ve spoken about:
• Our first sustainability plan, called GreeNR, a 20-year blueprint for economic, environmental and social progress, and a standard by which to measure policy-making on a rolling basis.
• Our new Comprehensive Plan, under development right now through an unprecedented inclusive process. A document that will help us to better initiate and react to development, confident that it reflects larger community values and goals.
• Our lead role in the Sustainable Communities Initiative, which links us to municipalities from New Haven out to Long Island, all committed to integrated planning, with out focus particularly on New Rochelle’s transit district.
Do we have immediate and urgent challenges at this moment? Of course we do, just like every other city. But in New Rochelle, we are also keeping one eye fixed on the future, and I am absolutely convinced that this will pay dividends over the course of a generation or more.
I’ll close with an analogy that builds on that phrase “paying dividends.” When you buy a stock the virtues of which have already been broadly recognized, then those virtues will be built into the price, and the potential for further growth will be limited as a result. What distinguishes the best investors is their ability to pick the stock that has objective, clear, bankable virtues . . . that have not yet been broadly recognized.
Today, in New Rochelle you can rent space at a fraction of the square foot rate you will find elsewhere. You can acquire commercial space at a fraction of the cost. You will never get a better bargain. And you will never place a better bet on the future.
I began by saying that I did not want to engage in excessive salesmanship. I suppose I have done so anyway, but I hope you agree it has been honest salesmanship – not a pitch that ignores problems, but rather one that puts those difficulties in context and sets them against positive qualities and actions of far greater significance. New Rochelle will be proud to do business with you – and you, I predict, will be proud to do business with us.
Thank you for listening.