Perhaps nothing speaks more clearly to Mayor Bloomberg’s impact on the business community in New York better than the 11th-hour passage of the long-awaited Willets Point redevelopment plan.
It’s a great deal for the developers, the Mets’ Sterling Equities and real estate leader The Related Companies. They’re getting 23 acres of taxpayer-owned land for all of $1. They’re also getting more than $40 million in tax breaks, along with other public benefits, such as the new Van Wyck Expressway ramps that will let people access their planned retail and entertainment complex.
On the losing end are the small businesses, mostly auto repair shops, that are being forced out of the place they have long called home. Also losing out are the taxpayers that are funding so much of the project, including the massive environmental remediation it entails.
Across Queens and the rest of the city, Bloomberg’s policies have generally been beneficial to big business but not so much to small business, at least not directly. He’s kept taxes down, and provided tax breaks to a large number of major corporations that might have gone elsewhere otherwise. Yes, that’s corporate welfare, but other cities and states do it, and unilateral disarmament is a losing proposition. (The difference with the Willets Point tax breaks is that something new is being created there; it’s not that an existing business has to be persuaded not to move.)
Bloomberg’s regulatory regime has also been disproportionately unfair to small businesses, especially the cliche mom-and-pop shops that line so many Queens streets. Since he’s been in office, fines levied against such businesses have nearly doubled. Speak to most merchants, as we do every day, and they’ll tell you that after the still-anemic economy, the biggest threats to their livelihoods are such fines.
Think of the Brooklyn grocer who photocopied the required notice about tobacco sales to minors seven times so he could post it all over the store, and was then fined $7,000, a thousand bucks for each sign, because they were in black type instead of red type as required. C’mon.
On the other hand, Bloomberg’s acumen with big business — and with his self worth of $31 billion, almost no one’s bigger than him — has paid off. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the city’s economy could have tanked, but instead it rebounded well. And even after the downturn of 2008, New York pulled through better than most places, with jobs returning faster — though not enough yet.
One reason for these successes is that Bloomberg has encouraged diversification in the economy. Wall Street is still the city’s financial backbone, but it occupies a smaller share of the economy than it once did. The entertainment industry, for one, has grown. Just look at the recent expansion of Kaufman Astoria Studios to see an example of how government and industry can work together for everyone’s benefit. Technology is another area Bloomberg has worked to expand. The Cornell University technology campus slated for Roosevelt Island will yield untold benefits once it’s up and running — in fact some say it already has, as anticipation is drawing more tech companies to Western Queens.
That part of the borough is also where the real estate market is exploding with city encouragement. We’d like to see such a strong market — though not high rises — all over Queens. You can’t blame Bloomberg for the housing crisis, but there is much you can blame him for, and give him credit for, when it comes to the economy. He certainly has had a lasting impact on business of all kinds in the city.