LI businesses look for future in new census data

The developer of Kensington Gardens in St. James

The developer of Kensington Gardens in St. James says he will look at how his projects fit in with the demographic changes seen in the 2010 Census. (March 3, 2011) (Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa)

For companies, the 2010 Census serves as a benchmark to see if their strategy addresses Long Island's increasingly diverse and aging population.

Real estate developers, insurers, retailers and others trying to appeal to the mass market are now poring over the census data released last week. Some may tweak plans, in particular, because of the unexpected 56 percent jump in the number of Hispanics.

However, businesses cannot rely on the official population count as their primary window into demographic changes because the census comes out only every 10 years. So at best, the official count has limited impact on executives' decisions.

Census officials and others said the annual American Community Survey, also from the Census Bureau, provides more timely information about residents' age, race, gender, education, income and occupation. The survey, unlike the census, is based on a small representative population sample.

"We've already done our homework before the census comes out," said Arlene Putterman, a spokeswoman for grocer Stop & Shop. "Basically, what it does is confirm what our research has shown us."

Stop & Shop and other supermarket chains do studies of neighborhoods to determine what should be on the shelves.

"Each store takes on its own identity," Putterman said. "We do a lot of research to make sure we are catering to all the different groups . . . We talk to civic leaders, schools, religious leaders to get a flavor for what the community's needs are."

The same holds for real estate developers.

The Park Ridge Organization in Hauppauge hasn't built a single-family home in about seven years, preferring instead to construct town houses and other multifamily units sought by seniors and working couples.

Park Ridge owner Charlie Mancini said, "People want homes with less maintenance, they don't want to bother with mowing the lawn or raking leaves . . . People who are older want to keep a home here but be able to go to Florida or the Carolinas when it gets cold."

In his review of the census, Mancini plans to focus on changes in the number of seniors and minorities. He's targeting the former group for Kensington Gardens, a new development of 90 town houses with two-car garages and a community fitness club in St. James.

"The census isn't a driving force in our business," Mancini said, "but it's certainly something we pay attention to, particularly as the ethnic makeup of Long Island has changed over the last three or four decades."

Since 2000 the region grew 2.9 percent to 2.8 million residents. Much of the gain came from Hispanics, who now account for 15.5 percent of the population. They, along with blacks, Asians and other minorities, make up 31.3 percent of the total.

Such diversity presents a challenge to high schools and colleges in terms of training the future workforce for a "knowledge-based economy," said Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association business group. "We should ensure all ethnic groups have similar opportunities to participate in the economy so no one is left behind."

Retailers are often the first to see population shifts, long before census takers go door to door. But some stores are better than others in changing what's on the racks.

"Some are doing such a bad job keeping pace," said Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst at The NPD Group, a national research firm based in Port Washington. "They are more concerned about reaching customers through social networks than adapting to what the consumer wants today."

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