Westchester has the Hudson Valley. Fairfield County has its Gold Coast.
The two counties are home to some of the most powerful public and private companies in the world, from General Electric Co. to IBM Corp., PepsiCo Inc. to Xerox Corp., and Bridgewater Associates L.P. to GAMCO Investors Inc.
However, with many of the region’s largest employers facing a dearth of qualified and interested recruits, businesses are increasingly opting to relocate all or parts of their operations to more lucrative locations, such as New York City, or to cheaper sites, such as Jersey City or Hoboken.
Highlighting the lack of affordable workforce housing in Westchester and Fairfield counties, panelists at an Oct. 25 roundtable discussion called for better coordination between businesses and government entities.
“Everybody needs to get more involved because unfortunately, when we look through the list or recommend for friends where to live, where to rent, where to buy – it’s very expensive,” said Kevin McCarthy, of White Plains, N.Y., a senior associate of CBRE Inc.’s Stamford office. “We haven’t had a lot of product that’s come on the market recently that is structured to the professional housing that I can recommend to my friends who want to spend $1,200 to $1,500 a month in rent.”
The panel, “Stop the Flight,” was held at Morton’s The Steakhouse in White Plains, N.Y., and hosted by the Fairfield County Business Journal and sister publication the Westchester County Business Journal.
The discussion featured McCarthy, Denise Duca, senior vice president of human resources of Acorda Therapeutics Inc., based in Ardsley, N.Y.; Andi Gray, president of Strategy Leaders Inc., based in Chappaqua, N.Y.; Brendan Meyer, chairman of the Westchester County Association’s Young Professionals Group, based in White Plains; and Arthur Parkos, vice president of the Strategic Technology and Innovation Center at Pitney Bowes Inc., based in Stamford.
The event was moderated by Chris Dessi, CEO of Silverback Social, based in Chappaqua.
A failure to address the housing issue could jeopardize businesses’ abilities to recruit new employees and could pose a significant risk to the towns and cities that depend on corporate tenants for tax revenues and on locally based employees to drive spending, Gray said.
“Go to your towns. Find out what’s happening in your towns and get behind those initiatives,” said Gray, in reference to a countywide mandate in Westchester to develop workplace, or affordable, housing units in each municipality. “Because as employers, if we don’t do that, we’re not going to have a workforce left.”
The key is not just housing, but developing hubs that feature a number of diverse attractions, Meyer said.
“What draws people to a space is more people, not just a good restaurant or a movie theater but a lot of different things going on,” he said.
While several towns and cities in both counties, such as Stamford and Harrison, N.Y., have placed an emphasis on allowing property owners to repurpose unoccupied or underused facilities, there are few true social centerpieces north of New York City, McCarthy said.
“From working in Stamford you see what they’ve built down there,” he said. “They’re building something that’s two blocks from the train, they have parks, they have waterways, they have restaurants … and they’re building 4,000 units of housing.”
On the contrary, he said, in Westchester “there really is a lack of a centerpiece.”
“I know White Plains, everyone likes to congregate there … but there are no parks. You go to the downtown White Plains train station after 6 o’clock and it’s a ghost town. There’s no retail down there. … We need a centerpiece to hit on all levels, whether it’s recreation or housing or restaurants.”
The primary roadblock is prohibitive zoning practices, Meyer said.
White Plains’ West Moreland neighborhood is one of the areas the Young Professionals Group has targeted as an area that could benefit from redevelopment efforts.
“We go through there, we have this company Public for Public Spaces that shows us what it could be, and I have a conversation with somebody who’s pretty well plugged in who says, ‘Brendan, that’s great, but it’s not zoned for that,’” Meyer said. “If we’re not in the conversation (with municipal officials), the only projects that are ever going to come across the boards in the different towns are going to be over-55 communities, because that doesn’t add any kids to the school districts, and luxury.”
Focus on employee development
Duca said it is critical for employers to be aware of the types of benefits and the general work climate sought by young professionals.
She said it’s important to offer employees a compensation structure that they have a stake in.
“They want a component where they have some control over their bonuses – setting goals and being able to show their achievements,” Duca said. “What I’ve found also to be important is the environment: what is the culture like, what is the climate like, how much flexibility will I have in this organization, where can I go, is it growing?”
Added Parkos, “It’s that notion of being adaptable.”