Rockland County may be turning a corner, with $88 million in development slated for 2013.
"There's stuff that's happening in Rockland County," said Al Samuels, president of the Rockland Business Association.
The county, facing a $96 million deficit, started seeing glimmers of hope in 2012 when construction began on the $150 million Shops at Nanuet, which has brought roughly 1,500 construction jobs and is projected to add more than 1,000 retail positions later this year. Furniture giant Raymour and Flanigan opened a $46 million, 893,000-square-foot distribution center in Montebello, with plans for a $9 million expansion this year.
"The Shops at Nanuet, that's going to help redefine parts of Rockland because it's going to be upscale," Samuels said. "I believe it's going to be motivation for the shopping districts around the mall to improve their sites."
Before the recession, the county saw as many as 10 major projects annually. From 2005 on, that number dwindled to about three a year. Plans for eight new projects are in the works so far this year, said Steve Porath, the executive director of Rockland County's Industrial Development Agency.
• A $13.4 million Holiday Inn Express in Spring Valley.
• NYLO, a $24 million luxury boutique hotel in Nyack.
• A $22 million, 106-unit apartment rental complex in Haverstraw.
• An ABCO $5 million distribution center in West Nyack.
• Expansions by companies already in Rockland, including Stary Kay White and Cervene.
"When you're seeing a lot of activity in the beginning of the year, it seems like a signal that it'll be a good year for Rockland," Porath said.
"All the municipal leaders, we all know each other and as a consequence, we can respond very quickly to opportunities," Porath said. "It's a terrific asset of ours that might not be found elsewhere."
Handsome tax exemptions help lure businesses into the area, Porath said, but with the county's looming financial crisis, the IDA has to be careful while crafting and calculating deals.
"It isn't to provide as much tax dollars as you can; the art is to provide enough incentive but always be mindful of the exemptions," Porath said. "You can't give too much away because there always has to be a 'win' for the county."
Raymour and Flanigan was offered a sales tax exemption last year on $5.5 million in spending and an exemption on the mortgage recording tax. After the state's share, the county would have seen about $300,000 without the exemptions, Porath said.
"But we initially got 200 jobs and $12.4 million came into our economic volume," Porath said. "And they're bringing in another 100 jobs this year and more than $1 million in property taxes each year for us. It's that investment that we're going to get our money back many times over."
The Shops at Nanuet received an exemption package that allowed them to skirt $1.7 million in local taxes, Porath said, but the county will look to receive about $2.6 million in local taxes from the expected $200 million in annual retail sales.
"It's a difficult decision but we're balancing on the long-term health of the county," said Legis. Michael Grant (D-Pomona), head of both the Budget and Finance Committee as well as the Economic Development Committee.
While the county's financial status is a concern for those who want to see improvements in the area, merchants looking to build in Rockland aren't fazed, Samuels said.
"I don't think it makes a damn bit of difference," Samuels said about the county's deficit. "But that doesn't mean we're not obligated to correct the problems so it does become an impediment."
Rockland leaders aren't counting on a turnaround just yet as they wade through a number of concerns that hinder development.
Transportation and affordable housing are top issues, while some say changes in zoning and planning processes are needed. Not having a large number of available buildings and the expansiveness of parkland, which takes up more than one-third of the county, also are seen as drawbacks to economic development.
While the influx of commuters coming into Rockland for work has increased 111 percent from 26,828 to 56,627 commuters over the past decade, according to data from the Tappan Zee Bridge Mass Transit Task Force, local leaders continue to see a mass transit component with the new Tappan Zee Bridge as a key to Rockland's future success.
Since Rockland's low-income population has more than doubled over the past decade, affordable housing is also a concern.
No matter the challenges, Porath and his five-member board are optimistic.
"In the last few years, everyone in the five towns seems to be very willing to sit around the table and work as a team," Porath said.