Lessons From Montauk Business Summit

(November 04, 2010) After holding a business summit last Thursday in Montauk, members of the East Hampton Town Board reviewed the discussion there at a work session on Saturday, and mapped its implications for the future.

For Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, the meeting underscored a need for a “multi-year economic development plan for East Hampton.”

“What I got out of the meeting,” Mr. Wilkinson said, besides “a tremendous amount of respect in the room,” was “the fact that, unanimously, I thought, the audience said business is good and they want to see business do well and continue to grow.”

“The major criticism was that our planning process was dysfunctional,” he said, referring to complaints from business owners that the process of obtaining site plan approvals and other permissions is onerous. “So it came very clearly that the board has a responsibility to correct that situation.”

“I don’t think business has ever had a seat at the government table, to say ‘we’d like our views to be considered a little more than they have in the past,’ ” Mr. Wilkinson said.

“I think one of the reasons for that is that business has often been deemed ‘developer,’ ” Councilman Dominick Stanzione said. “There’s been this sort of code word that ‘developer’ means evil, and when dealing with evil all bets are off in terms of combating it, and so we developed a system of approvals and codes that have been in opposition to that perception for, now, several decades.”

Business owners at last week’s meeting were “frustrated, and they asked us for help for the vibrancy of their business,” Councilwoman Theresa Quigley said. “Our businesses are not ‘businesses,’ as in that bad word, ‘business’ — that seems to be the new bad word. It used to be developers and now it’s business. They were our constituents,” she said. “They were local people. They’re not big, evil business, and we have not given them a seat at the table.”

She suggested that since last week’s meeting drew mostly Montaukers, the board should have another business summit, this time in East Hampton.

“We are committed both to reducing the tax burden and increasing the job opportunities,” Ms. Quigley said, noting that officials are working behind the scenes to attract “high-tech, low-density” businesses here.

“We react in this town,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “From a business point of view, we don’t have the matrix to make the decisions. We need some resident economic expertise.”

Councilman Dominick Stanzione said that he hopes the town will create “within the Planning Department or planning function people who will make it their primary function to come up with a system of gathering and managing that data,” as a basis for future board decisions.

The discussion last week, he said, showed that “if we look at the population shifts in this town over the last 20 years, many, many of them have been unintended, and unintended consequences of policies that have, let’s just say, sort of positive ambiance to them, but the end result may have ended up costing the community, if you look at the school taxes and the tax burden on the community as a whole.”

“The trend or data, as I see it, is that we are trending towards a senior citizen community that is basically alienating growth and vibrancy in the rest of the community, and I’m concerned about it,” Mr. Stanzione said.

“How many children and how vibrant of a community do we want to be? Do we want to have our community continue to age in excess of the average of the U.S. population? Do we want 50, 60 percent of our population to be senior citizens? Is that where we’re going?”