2013-03-01 / Columnists

My Turn

What To Do With $20 Million
By Peter Corless

What do you want to do with $20 million, Rockaways? If you had that sort of budget authority to see economic development spurred in the peninsula, how would you spend it? That's what I've been racking my brain over ever since I heard about it.

On February 6th, 2013, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced $1.8 billion in initiatives for Sandy recovery. In the overall package, as part of an Infrastructure Resiliency track, the Mayor put forward a challenge of $100 million for economic development. This proposed "Neighborhood Game-Changer Investment Competition" is to be apportioned between five Business Recovery Zones hardest hit by the storm: South Queens, South Brooklyn, Brooklyn-Queens Waterfront, Lower Manhattan and Staten Island. This is how it was defined:

Neighborhood Game-Changer Investment Competition: $100 million to jumpstart economic activity in the five Business Recovery Zones by allocating, through “Race-to-the-Top” style competitions, grants to the most innovative and effective investment ideas for spurring long-term economic growth. Possible ideas could include attraction of growing companies and/or companies of significant size, attraction of companies that serve the needs of underserved populations, or other transformative investments in key corridors. I keep going back over all that I know about the Rockaways and everything I've learned since the advent of Hurricane Sandy. What is the most effective way to utilize these funds? I had an idea, but I wanted validation. After reaching out to individuals this past week, including Jonathan Gaska at Queens Community Board 14, Democratic District Leader Lew Simon, Dan Guarino of The Wave, and others, I wanted to share my concept with the Rockaway community.

In "Community District Needs, Fiscal Year 2013, for the Borough of Queens" this stood out for me in the Community Board 14 report: "The Peninsula’s unemployment rate is high compared to the rest of the Borough and remains a serious problem. Our most precious resource, our youth, experience a 35 percent unemployment rate. Our adult unemployment rate remains at 16 percent."

Nationally, teen unemployment is 23 percent; the adult rate is 7.9 percent. That means teen unemployment is nearly 50 percent worse in the Rockaways; adult unemployment is double the national average. Even more troubling: the Community Board 14 statistics were from before Sandy made landfall. It's worse now.

While re-opening existing businesses is needed, and building an effective retail sector remains a priority for the community, having stores alone will not transform the fundamental issues of the community. Why come back if business is off by up to 40 percent? Why build new retail if there is still rampant unemployment? How can people shop if they have no income? We need to attract new business: professional, future-focused, high-tech and servicesector companies to the community. And we need an educated workforce to staff those businesses.

We are hamstrung as a community right now because the highest level of education regularly offered in the Rockaways is a high school diploma. There is the "CUNY On Wheels" program, but it is only available with limited availability. It was a make-do effort when the plans for CUNY By-The-Sea fell through. How can we expect students in the Rockaways to be able to compete for jobs if the best they have is a high school diploma? And how can Rockaway’s adults compete in this century if all they have is skills from the last century?

The Rockaways need higher education, continuing education and technical certification programs for vocations.

My vision is to produce a plan for a high-tech campus and nearby high-tech business park with a focus on science and engineering. This would focus on programs relevant for the community and the city at large. What can be learned directly from our natural environment? Could we create a magnet program to solve for the next decade of environmental science to save the city from future storms?

We need to start from scratch: site selection, educational and business partners. Whatever happened in the past, or didn't happen, needs to be taken into account. But we have to treat Sandy as "wiping the slate clean." And we need to dream big. For that, $20 million will be the "seed capital" for the long-term vision. To truly transform the community might take an order of magnitude more through business and educational investments.

If you want to help create this vision, contact me by phone at 650-906-3134, or email petercorless@mac.com. To contribute or follow the progress of these plans online, see our file on Facebook:

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