10 Questions with County Executive Robert P. Astorino
Astorino talks business growth, sustainability, and more in Westchester County.
Photo by Lynda Shenkman Curtis – Oxygen House Photography Studio
Westchester is spreading the word “GROW.” What are the thoughts behind this message?
Entrepreneurs are the driving force behind a thriving economy. In Westchester, we believe the role of county government is to create an environment where entrepreneurs and companies achieve their full potential. Our first focus is on companies that are already here. The county’s “GROW” campaign uses our resources like seeds to help the growth of companies right in our own backyard. As a result, companies of all sizes – but especially smaller companies looking to take that next step – have been able to take advantage of various tax and other financial incentives we offer through our Industrial Development Agency.
How does Westchester’s reputation as New York’s Intellectual Capital® play into the “GROW” message?
Westchester has an abundance of what companies need most to succeed, namely skilled and talented workers. Our workforce, where 45 percent of Westchester residents age 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree, is second to none. Equipment can always be replaced, but there’s no substitute for the ideas, inspiration and innovation of smart people. Companies in Westchester know they can attract and retain the talent they need to grow their businesses.
Does the “GROW” message have a “green” element to it?
Sustainability is a big part of Westchester’s economic culture. It simply makes good business sense for companies to be both economically and environmentally savvy. That’s why we hold the annual Green Business Challenge, which educates business owners on how to save money and increase efficiencies by adopting smart “green” practices. We also have several companies that have been the first in their fields to achieve LEED certification, and they continue to lead the way.
As the global economy struggles to regain its footing, how has Westchester been able to maintain a competitive edge?
The first thing is to maintain our strengths. We do that by continuing to attract and retain businesses with our smart workers, excellent transportation and affordable corporate real estate. We are also working hard to make county government as business‑friendly as possible. For the past three years, there has been no increase in the county tax levy and we have strengthened relationships with our largest and smallest companies.
What do you do to keep businesses in the loop about programs and opportunities?
Every day, we are out on the street, taking the pulse of the business community. We’re meeting people face‑to‑face, listening to their needs and aggressively responding to those needs. For those we can’t speak to directly, we have an extensive online platform, including a dedicated business website and an active social media presence. This way we can connect to people not only in Westchester, but worldwide.
In addition, I always stop in and speak with small business owners to see if there are ways we can help or to get ideas. I also get personally involved with large companies as well, such as our negotiations to ensure that Atlas Air and PepsiCo continue to stay and grow in Westchester.
Certain business sectors seem to thrive on cooperation, or clustering. Is this something the county has made a concerted effort to foster?
Westchester has certainly taken a leadership role in cluster development. We have some of the largest biotech firms headquartered right here in Westchester. Through our BioHud Valley initiative, for example, we have fostered collaboration among biotech companies not just in the county but across the Hudson Valley. The result is a biotech industry that is much more vibrant than a collection of isolated companies. The great thing about clustering is that success attracts more companies and investment. Another clustering initiative is our North 60 project, where we are taking one of the county’s largest undeveloped tracts of land – 60 acres adjacent to Westchester Medical Center and New York Medical College in Mount Pleasant – and developing it as an anchor site for biotech companies.
In which fields has clustering been most successful?
Clustering has certainly been successful for the biotech industry. The food and beverage industry is another thriving cluster, and we have helped to connect companies through the formation of the Hudson Valley Food & Beverage Alliance. In addition, tourism has become a huge cluster in the Hudson Valley, linking hotels, restaurants, cultural centers and other attractions. Even farms farther north are being connected to Westchester restaurants to help strengthen and grow the cluster.
Why is the county especially good at cultivating entrepreneurship?
For one thing, we have had tremendous success in connecting entrepreneurs to venture capital. Access to capital is a huge driver of entrepreneurial growth. In addition, areas that have a high concentration of well‑educated individuals, which is the case in Westchester, naturally tend to foster more of the entrepreneurial spirit.
What are some innovative ways Westchester gets young professionals to “Think Westchester”?
Engaging our young professionals is crucial for our future success. We involve young professionals on multiple levels: through social media, interactive seminars and conferences and networking events that are relevant to their lives and interests.
As Westchester businesses continue to grow, what have been some of your administration’s most satisfying accomplishments?
What I find to be most satisfying is helping small businesses reach that next level of growth. Usually these business owners are pleasantly surprised that government actually was there as a partner rather than a roadblock. But we’re ready to help companies of all sizes. Overall, our objective is to create a completely healthy ecosystem that feeds on itself, meaning we’re seeding entrepreneurs and start‑ups, giving midsize businesses the boost they need to succeed at the next level, and assisting our global corporations in sustaining their positions as worldwide leaders.
To contact the Westchester County Office of Economic Development, call 914‑995‑2963 or visit www.ThinkingWestchester.com. Learn about the Westchester County IDA at 914‑995‑2926 or www.ThinkingWestchester.com/ida.