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92% of Islanders concerned about their downtowns, nextLI survey finds

Scott Wilson, a business owner in Centerport, talked

Scott Wilson, a business owner in Centerport, talked about the changes he's seen in its downtown since the pandemic started. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Long Islanders love their downtowns, and, having visited them less often during the COVID-19 pandemic, are eager to return to them, according to a nextLI survey.

The survey found that three out of four Islanders had visited their downtown at least once a month before the pandemic, and 96% said having vibrant downtowns is important to the quality of life here.

"Downtown has a lot of support … near universal," said Don Levy, lead researcher with the Siena College Research Institute, which performed the survey for nextLI.

The nextLI project is a Newsday initiative funded by a grant from the Rauch Foundation, with a goal of stimulating Islandwide discussion on public policy questions.

Long Island's downtowns have taken a tremendous economic hit during the pandemic, with some places laying off workers or closing temporarily or for good. Some 92% of Islanders said they were concerned that local businesses can't sustain until the crisis is over.

Scott Wilson, 61, of Centerport, said the downtown, where he runs a home renovation business, is vital to creating a sense of community. He said he has come to know the man who sells him the newspaper and the one who pours him coffee. He doesn't limit himself to just one downtown, as he likes to take his wife out to eat at the Ritz restaurant in downtown Northport and go to the movies in Huntington village.

"I'm a community guy. It's everything," Wilson said. "It's the heart of the community. I can't wait to get back and talk to people."

The survey reached out to 1,400 Nassau and Suffolk residents 18 years of age and older from Jan. 20 to Feb 1. The survey had a plus or minus margin of error of 3%, Levy said. The great majority said they have visited downtowns less during the pandemic.

For all the downtown support, about 20% of Islanders said they plan on using the downtown less post-pandemic, and many of those say they have changed their eating and shopping habits. Some said they have become accustomed to shopping online and ordering out for food. Some worried that the risk of contracting the virus might remain. Others said they won't be able to afford going out as much, having lost income over the past year, according to the survey.

"There's some reticence at this point," Levy said. "They're saying, 'I can't quite picture myself being comfortable going to a restaurant.' "

Camille Dandola, 61, of South Bellmore, said she spreads out her shopping and dining to several locations, buying pizza and seeing a movie in the local "village," but also visiting restaurants she likes in Massapequa and Farmingdale.

She has done more shopping online during the pandemic, she said. She has discovered that it's more convenient to shop online than to drive to a store, she said, especially when she knows what she wants to buy. She expects she will keep shopping online a lot after the pandemic.

"Anything I want, I can get online," Dandola said. "I bought a gift for a bridal shower and didn't have to go to Bed Bath & Beyond. And I bought a mixer for myself online instead of going to Target."

Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, a regional business group, said he believes many people who said they will come downtown less will change their minds when they feel more secure about going to restaurants and theaters.

"It gives people a sense of community. They chat with the local store owner. They frequent the restaurants where their name is known or their face is recognized," Law said.

Returning to downtown will help people return to a sense of normalcy, Law said. But that new normal will vary from the old ways, he said. People may still have to abide by some virus precautions, such as masking and social distancing, he said. He also believes the outdoor dining that has been popular during the pandemic should remain in place.

Long Islanders tend to agree. The survey showed that 61% of people would like more outdoor restaurant space. Other popular ideas were more landscaping and green space (60%) and more local artists and vendors in small stall-like displays (57%).

At the same time, Long Islanders had mixed feelings about bringing more housing units to downtown, with 33% in favor, 38% opposed and the remainder either not knowing or not commenting. This may well be a reflection of Islanders' liking for a suburban feel where houses are separate from shopping areas, Levy said.

Stuart Mayrick, 59, of Kings Park, said he's hoping for more revitalization of his downtown, including more landscaping, outdoor dining and events that close the streets for community events.

"I think people are hungry for that," Mayrick said.

NEXTLI SURVEY SAYS …

Siena College Research Institute surveyed Long Islanders for nextLI, from Jan. 20 to Feb 1, asking them about their downtowns.

  • 96%: Said having vibrant downtowns is important to quality of life.
  • 92%: Worry whether local businesses can survive the pandemic.
  • 61%: Would like more outdoor restaurant space.
  • 60%: Would like more landscaping and green space.
  • 57%: Would like more local artists and vendors in small stall-like displays.

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