JFK helps spur economic rebound

By Courtney Dentch

Although new job growth and a variety of strong industries paint an optimistic portrait for Queens, the borough has not yet gotten back to the peak seen in 2000, said Marilyn Rubin, a partner with Urbanomics, an economic consulting firm that works with the Queens Economic Development Corporation.

“It's a low-octane recovery because the recovery is there, but it's not where we would like it to be,” she said.

Rubin was one of six panelists who outlined a cautiously optimistic 2004 economic forecast for the borough at a business breakfast held by QEDC and the Long Island City Business Development Corporation at the Citibank Building in Long Island City Friday.

The borough lost about 14,000 jobs in the recession following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, but Queens has gained back 2,000 jobs in 2003, Rubin said. Queens' job growth last year outpaced that of the rest of the city, where positions are still being lost, she said.

“Job growth in Queens is better than the rest of the city,” Rubin said. “It's a relatively small growth, but it's certainly positive.”

A diverse economy has played a large role in the borough's recovery. While Manhattan's economy relied primarily on the financial and Internet industries, which have been very slow to rebound, Queens has five big economic sectors: Air travel and transportation, retail, manufacturing, health care and construction. These industries have recorded improvements over the last year, Rubin said.

The aviation industry, in particular, has had a strong recovery. The field lost about 20,000 jobs at the two Queens airports when traffic slowed after Sept. 11 – Kennedy and LaGuardia airports lost about 5 million passengers, said Gene Spruck, the chief economist for the Port Authority, who also sat on Friday's panel.

The airports represent about 13 percent of the private industry wages earned in Queens, not including off-airport related jobs, such as those at hotels or restaurants, Spruck said.

“Aviation activity, both passenger and cargo, is very important to Queens,” he said.

Kennedy Airport has become the fastest growing airport in the region, thanks primarily to domestic traffic from Forest Hills-based airline JetBlue, Spruck said. Kennedy's volume in 2003 swelled by 5.9 percent over 2002 figures to 31.7 million passengers, he said. The airport is expected to see another 6 percent increase this year, putting it above the peak traffic flow seen in 2000, Spruck said.

LaGuardia's passenger volume grew by 2.2 percent in 2003, serving 22.5 million travelers, Spruck said. That airport should see a 3 percent hike this year, putting it on pace to reach its pre-recession peak figures in 2005, he said.

“The expected revival of business traffic should bode well for the performance of LaGuardia this year and beyond,” Spruck said.

The retail industry is also recovering, Rubin said. This is especially evident in the expansion of Queens Center Mall, said Borough President Helen Marshall.

“Queens Center Mall is expanding and more than doubling their size,” she said. “When it's finished, it will be one of the largest malls in the country. We have the customers here in Queens.”

The borough's health care industry remained strong throughout the recession, while the manufacturing and construction fields were expected to rebound as the economy improved, Rubin said.

The diversity of fields in Queens is key to its economic recovery, said Jason Bram, regional economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

“The outlook for Queens is very promising because of the industry mix,” he said.

But the borough still has a lot of opportunity to take better advantage of its economic recovery, said City Council Speaker Gifford Miller (D-Manhattan).

“Queens is an incredibly important part of the city's economy,” he said. “It has tremendous assets I think have been under utilized.”

Marshall has been pushing tourism in Queens as one way to draw more people and businesses, she said. Another idea is to bring in convention space to transit hub areas such as Flushing and Jamaica, said Jonathan Bowles, research director for the Center for an Urban Future.

And playing off Queens' ethnic diversity, Bowles suggested developing a marketing plan for the borough's great variety of restaurants.

“We need to do more to market Queens' unique assets,” he said. “We could lure a lot more out-of-town guests or just New Yorkers looking for a good meal.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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