Whitestone man begins new civic era

By Connor Adams Sheets

Whitestone is getting a new civic association despite opposition from state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside).

For years the northeast Queens neighborhood was served only by the Greater Whitestone Taxpayers Association, but that is about to change under the leadership of Devon O’Connor.

A 20-year-old wunderkind, O’Connor demonstrated dedication to community service in his hometown with the success of his Welcome to Whitestone business group. With 70 members, the group has put him on the map, and now he is moving on to civics with the launch of the Welcome to Whitestone Commercial and Residential Civic Association.

O’Connor’s existing Welcome to Whitestone business group has hosted fund-raisers for community groups and is working to earn enough money to replace the aging “Welcome to Whitestone” sign his group was named for when it launched in June 2010. He hopes to have the new sign installed in May.

O’Connor says the mission of the new civic will be to provide a new way for businesses and residents to make their voices heard.

“A lot of people have been telling me I should start a civic. I’ve been getting a lot of support,” he said. “The Facebook page has over 1,000 followers and we get over 700 hits per day on the web site, average. So we have got a lot of people backing me. There seems to be a lot of interest in forming a group to do things for the community.”

But Avella does not support the creation of a new civic, saying it will divide a community that has stood strong with the representation of the Taxpayers for years and will “dilute the power” residents have to make their voices heard.

“I don’t think there’s a need for another civic association. Whitestone has always worked together through the Greater Whitestone Taxpayers Association, which also works with the business community, to have one cohesive, unified voice for the community,” Avella said. “It has worked very well in the past and there haven’t been the types of rivalries that other communities have had when groups compete to represent the community.”

Marlene Cody, a vice president for the Taxpayers, declined to comment on O’Connor or his civic.

O’Connor contends that many business owners feel under-represented by the Taxpayers and local officials.

“The businesses in my business group are owned by Whitestone residents and a lot of them were saying, ‘That’s great, you’re promoting the businesses and doing good in the community, but how come there’s no group in Whitestone that you can go to with concerns and problems?’” he said. “Who knows what’s going on in Whitestone? We have the Taxpayers, but a lot of people aren’t happy with them.”

As he raises his profile in the community, O’Connor is having to take some uncomfortable stances.

The Taxpayers have spent years serving the community, but their positions on some recent issues — particularly their opposition to a businessman’s divisive plan to overhaul the White House restaurant — have made them more controversial.

O’Connor spoke in support of therenovation when the proposal by White House owner Joe Franco went before the City Planning Commission in March.

Avella said O’Connor’s support of the proposal has little backing in the community.

“If that’s the issue he’s basing the community organization on, I don’t believe he has any support here. If it’s a couple of business owners that are part of this with him that seem to be basing this on wanting more development, then that wouldn’t have much community support.

City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone), who has a fraught relationship with Avella, has backed O’Connor from the outset.

“The councilman appreciates Devon’s work in the community and looks forward to working with him — whether it’s with the civic or through his community group,” Steve Stites, a Halloran spokesman, said.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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