It was known for a few years that JetBlue Airways was going to leave its corporate offices in Forest Hills Towers when its lease expired in 2012.
So both elected officials and the business community celebrated when the company announced it would be moving its operations and more than 1,000 employees to the historic Brewster Building in Long Island City.
“Orlando was offering them everything — land, and of course, the taxes,” Jack Friedman, executive director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, said. “This was huge not just for Long Island City, but for the image of the entire borough.”
In the end, the airline and industry analysts said some major considerations for the domestic carrier were its historic roots in New York City, proximity to two of the largest, busiest commercial airports in the world, and closer connections with some of its international partners, such as Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic, Japan Airways and Aer Lingus.
Not to be outdone by Orlando, the city and state stepped up with $30 million in tax breaks and financial assistance for the expansion of JetBlue’s terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport; and the right to display the state’s “I Love NY” logo in promotions.
And the love is requited, according to Joanna Geraghty, an executive vice president with the company.
“We’re proud to be a part of the Long Island City community,” Geraghty said in a statement released by the airline. “Our involvement in projects like the restoration of Andrews Grove Park as well as our partnerships with local schools like Aviation High School is truly important to us. Our over 1,000 [employees] at our Long Island City Support Center are certainly excited to see the benefits of supporting businesses and career growth in the area.”
Icema Gibbs, director of corporate social responsibility for the airline, said its commitment to jobs in the area is both direct and indirect.
She said the Aviation High school arrangement is part of the nonprofit Pencil Partnership program that links businesses with individual schools, and that JetBlue CEO David Barger, who chairs Pencil, is an active, hands-on leader in the program.
Published reports state that numerous Aviation alums now work for the company.
And while any large employer coming to town can have a positive impact on the local service industry and related small businesses, Gibbs said JetBlue was not content to be a passive observer in the process.
“We took our crew members who would be coming to Long Island City on a bus tour, showing them the neighborhood, the stores and the restaurants they could eat in,” Gibbs said. “We wanted our crew members to know this was more than just an office site.”
And when a large or important business meeting is scheduled to take place with a client, vendor or contractor coming to town, JetBlue holds it in Long Island City whenever possible.
This, Gibbs said, is on top of tree plantings in parks, playground renovations throughout the borough and supplying food, water and volunteers in the Rockaways for several days in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
A spokesman for the airline said JetBlue already has added more than 100 new employees to the 1,029 it brought over from Forest Hills, with room for future growth.
“It’s also useful to note that approximately 30 percent of our [employees] at our Long Island City Support Center are now also residents of Long Island City,” he said.
Friedman reiterated that the company’s decision to stay and expand has been felt boroughwide.
“It’s not just the number of jobs,” Friedman said. “I would rather have JetBlue with 850 jobs than Bob’s Plumbing with 3,000.” He said it is a matter of branding the borough in the business marketplace.
“If we had lost JetBlue, we would have lost not just the employees but a huge brand name,” he said. “It was one of the few corporate headquarters in the borough. Other companies would have looked at that and asked themselves why JetBlue was leaving Queens.”
Instead, Friedman said, they now look at reasons the airline chose to stay, and not just the cache of being in New York City.
“It is close to Manhattan but you can rent at bargain prices,” he said. “They like the mature workforce. It’s convenient to the Manhattan business district — you can get there in minutes, and enjoy the same benefits of Manhattan. And you’re working right near the airports.”