Queens economy shows resiliency after Sept. 11

By Dustin Brown

If America is the land of possibilities, then Queens is where they happen.

The fable goes that when immigrants step off the tarmac at JFK or LaGuardia, they settle down before reaching the county borders. Thus the borough that is home to the city’s major airports is also its most diverse, a description that applies as much to the economy as to the people.

But when Sept. 11 hit, the attack seen around the world also jarred that lifeblood of the borough’s economy, forcing the shutdown of both John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports and the eventual layoffs of thousands. Manufacturers and businesses in Queens with close ties to Lower Manhattan struggled alongside the companies based near Ground Zero.

Yet the borough has also shown a remarkable resiliency, with retailers reporting strong sales and development projects progressing apace despite the setbacks of Sept. 11 and a faltering economy. Meanwhile, the borough’s immigrants have tied Queens into a global economy that has provided added stability.

The Queens County Overall Economic Development Corporation has estimated that Queens lost 20,000 jobs as a result of the terrorist attacks, said Marie Nahikian, the executive director of the nonprofit group.

Of the unemployment claims the state Labor Department considers to be directly related to the terrorist attacks, 24 percent were filed by Queens residents.

A year later airlines are still cutting back and the effect flows directly into Queens. The air passenger and freight transportation industry directly employed 41,500 people in Queens before Sept. 11, accounting for 8.6 percent of the borough’s total employment, according to QCOEDC statistics.

“The airports were the big hit,” said Seth Bornstein, the director of economic development in the Queens borough president’s office.

The QCOEDC reported that 8,500 air transport jobs were lost in Queens between Sept. 11 and the spring, while an estimated 4,000 additional jobs evaporated in related industries such as airport parking, food services and hotels. Not only do airport employees often live in Queens, but many local businesses cater to the airports and suffered alongside the airlines.

The borough also has a strong base of manufacturers in areas such as Long Island City and College Point, many of which suffered because of their ties to Manhattan and the overall standstill after Sept. 11.

Queens ranked second only to Manhattan in the number of businesses that received federal assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which distributed 409 disaster loans totaling $24,408,700.

But Sept. 11 also struck at a time when the borough stood on the brink of a new era of development in its downtown areas, a future that has in some ways been advanced by the terrorist attacks.

“We like to think that there’s been a lot of people refocused and relooking at areas of Queens — Long Island City, Jamaica, Flushing — as areas for development as businesses tend to maybe diversify their options,” Bornstein said. “While it’s important that downtown is rebuilt, it’s important that businesses know there are alternatives for decentralization.”

But those effects are long-term in scope. Although the borough president’s office compiled a list of available spaces in the days after Sept. 11, Queens did not have a sufficient base of Class-A office space to accommodate companies displaced from Lower Manhattan.

Meanwhile, the market for office space has cooled over the past year, and the immediate need for companies to burst beyond Manhattan’s borders has died down.

But Queens remains poised to capture that market when it revives, especially after MetLife moved to Queens Plaza in November and broke ground on an expansion, helping to tear down the psychological barriers for companies considering a move to Queens.

“As the economy cycles through, people will eventually be looking for reasonably priced office space, and we will have it,” said Dan Miner, the director of business services at the Long Island City Business Development Corporation.

The opening of MoMA QNS on Queens Boulevard in June gave the borough the added cachet of a world-renowned art museum, and the Queens West project advanced with the opening of a new riverfront apartment tower in April.

Retailers, meanwhile, are performing well despite problems in other parts of the economy.

Although the Queens Center Mall felt a “slight downturn in business and traffic” immediately after Sept. 11, senior manager Curt Fickeisen said business has been faring extremely well in recent months.

“Business has been coming back since that time and we’re basically seeing very good business right now,” he said. “All of our spaces are occupied, we have no vacancy and the stores report good business. I’d say we’re in pretty good shape.”

The mall is also moving ahead on a major expansion that will double its size, Bornstein said, joining a long list of projects across the borough that have remained on track.

In southeast Queens, Jamaica Center opened in May with a multiplex movie theater and several national retailers, including the Gap and Old Navy, spurring what many hope to be the start of an economic revitalization that is expected to continue when the AirTrain directly links Jamaica to JFK in 2003.

The Flushing Mall, which opened in December, is still struggling to attract national retailers, a problem that afflicted the neighborhood long before Sept. 11. The blow to business in Chinatown affected Flushing after some residents lost their jobs, but neighborhood projects are still moving forward, such as the Flushing Expo, a mall slated for a fall opening.

Although the borough’s reliance on the airports has in many ways harmed its economy over the past year, their presence also provided stability in the form of immigrants who infuse new life and new money into the economy.

“All over the borough every neighborhood’s been impacted by a new infusion of capital by new Americans,” Bornstein said. “Years ago people came here with nothing but the shirt on their back. Now they come with capital, they have resources.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.