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Departing LIA chief saw change in LI economy

Former Long Island Association chief Matthew Crosson in

Former Long Island Association chief Matthew Crosson in his Commack office. (October 2000) Credit: Newsday, 2000

In April 2001, Long Island Association president Matthew Crosson blasted Suffolk County Executive Robert Gaffney's highly contentious veto of a bill.

By blocking the creation of a hiring hall in Farmingville, Gaffney "got it wrong," Crosson said publicly.

"Every now and then, Matt would take me to task," recalled Gaffney, now the president of Dowling College, where Crosson also serves on the board. Crosson was "never afraid to engage - that's critically important for someone in his position."

As Crosson prepares to step down by September after leading the LIA for the past 16 years, Gaffney and other supporters also credit Crosson with building up the organization, expanding its scope and elevating its prestige and influence. The association, which describes itself as "the largest business organization in New York,'' had about 3,000 members when Crosson took over and now has more than 5,200.

Gaffney said Crosson "took the LIA to a whole new level," helping transform it into an "advocacy organization on behalf of basically all the economic interests on Long Island."

Others, however, say the group hasn't met their needs. 

Small business issue
Business consultant John Hill of East Hills said the association overlooked the concerns of small businesses, and he recently formed a new group called the Long Island Alliance for Small Business. Referring to the LIA's recent announcement of a February event featuring both Presidents Bush at which tickets would likely be $2,000, Hill said, "What's that going to do for the small business guy?"

Richard Bivone, former president of the Nassau Council of Chambers of Commerce, is the Nassau co-chairman of another group that just formed called the Long Island Business Council. "We felt there was a need for an organization to be islandwide" and bring business owners and nonprofit community groups together on issues such as taxes, he said. Of the LIA, Bivone said, "I always thought they were a networking group. We wanted to be more grassroots."

But Crosson said that small businesses made up the vast majority of the LIA membership. "They join the LIA because they find it helps their business," he said. "I never object to other organizations - more power to them."

When Crosson took the helm of the LIA in the mid-1990s, Long Island was at a critical juncture, observers say. Michael Watt, executive vice president of the Long Island Builders Institute, said the region was still reeling from the loss of jobs at Grumman and in defense manufacturing.

"Matt created programs and an environment that encouraged the people who lost their positions in the defense industry to strike out on their own. As a result, Long Island has the unique position as an entrepreneurial business community," said Watt, who worked directly with Crosson at Long Island Partnership, a private-public partnership focused on economic development. With a richer diversity of industries, "we're not dependent on anyone," and the region is better able to withstand the economic downturn, he said.

Eric Alexander, executive director of Vision Long Island, a smart-growth advocacy nonprofit group, said when Crosson took over "there was a focus on bringing in everyone together and speaking with one voice, an attempt to substantially pull together what Long Island's needs were."

Crosson said through holding town meetings and a summit, the group came up with initiatives to boost the software industry and bring the business and educational communities together. "A lot of that was purely psychological," Crosson said. "There was a great deal of insecurity and uncertainty that needed to be dealt with." 

Affordable housing key
Crosson said many of the thorny issues facing the region have been controversial, such as affordable housing. "I paid a lot of attention to the loss of young people," Crosson said. "It became fairly obvious some years ago that one of the main reasons was they can't find an affordable place to live." The passage of a state affordable housing measure last year came after several years of lobbying, he said.

Kirk Kordeleski, an LIA board member leading the search committee to replace Crosson, said, "I think Matt has done this extraordinary job of being a thought leader on Long Island. Even when at times causes weren't as popular - the most recent one has been affordable housing - Matt has stuck to his guns. . . . to work on it until ultimately it was successful."

When asked what advice he would give his successor, Crosson said it would be "to listen, to be inclusive and to be strong once you decide the direction in which the LIA and the community should go."