Mayor Bill de Blasio made a bold prediction after he toured the final section of the rebuilt Rockaway boardwalk with community leaders at Beach 32nd Street in Far Rockaway May 26. The mayor declared the $341 million project to reconstruct the 5-1/2-mile stretch spanning from Beach 9th Street to Beach 126th Street was finished on schedule and under budget and then he turned prognosticator.
“This is going to be the summer of the Rockaways,” de Blasio said. “The millions who come to the boardwalk by bus, bike and ferry will see the Rockaways’ resilience and vibrancy in action. This boardwalk is proof of our commitment to building back stronger and better.”
The boardwalk opened to the public the following morning to kick off Memorial Day weekend and more than 5 million beach goers flocked to the Rockaways during the summer, according to the city’s Parks Department. Jonathan Gaska, Community Board 14’s district manager for 28 years, was part of the group that toured the boardwalk with the mayor, and he said de Blasio’s prediction came true.
“It was a spectacular success this summer. Five million people and we had some rainy weekends, too,” Gaska said. “All of the concessions did wonderfully and many of the businesses near the beach had a great summer, too.”
Some of the concessionaires did so much business they are considering the unthinkable.
“People want to keep their concessions open year round and I guarantee that’s never happened before,” state Sen. Joseph Addabo (D-Howard Beach said. “We used to have trouble finding people to run a good concession in years past.”
Addabbo believes NYC Ferry’s Rockaway route played a key role in the success story this summer. An average of 3,800 riders took the Rockaway ferry on weekends, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which has ordered three 350-passenger vessels that will help with the surprising number of passengers, who sometimes had to wait over an hour for a boat.
“I jokingly say that if the city had listened to the people who knew better, they would have ordered bigger boats and scheduled more runs,” Addabbo said. “And now they’re talking about expansion to points east to Far Rockaway and north to Broad Channel.”
City Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) agreed there was a Rockaway economic rebound this summer, thanks to the huge crowds.
“The beachgoers play an important role in revitalizing the economy, supporting local small business and creating local jobs,” Ulrich said.
Crowds showed up in “untraditional” places, too, according to Nick Master of the Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation. Beachgoers ventured east to Far Rockaway.
“We were getting waves of all types of people coming off the A train at Beach 43, Beach 32 and even as far east as Beach 25, and as they came out of the subway they had no idea which direction the beach was so you know they were first-timers,” Master said. “I just see this as a sign of an explosion. This is what economic development is all about. And there’s construction everywhere and the developers are hiring local workers who are educated but under-employed.”
Masters believes a renaissance is well underway all along the Rockaway peninsula, so much so that he moved his family there.
“We wanted to live through it,” Masters said. “Wait until you see what happens when they start the Far Rockway revitalization plan.”
While Ulrich shares in the excitement, not everyone is feeling a part of the economic upswing.
“I think the community has rebounded tremendously since Hurricane Sandy, but there are still homeowners and businesses that still haven’t recovered from the storm. There are still gates down on some shops on 116th Street that never reopened,” Ulrich said. “I think Sandy shined a light on some longstanding issues like transportation and economic development and likeability and if something good comes out of something bad, at least the city began to pay attention to a lot of the issues we had. It’s great that tens of thousands of more people have discovered one of the city’s hottest destinations in the summertime, but I think we have an obligation to help the local economy in the winter when the beach is not drawing those tens of thousands of people.”
Addabbo believes the city was forced to make investments on the peninsula like the boardwalk and the NYC Ferry route.
“It was long overdue and we’ve often felt neglected at times, but the city had to do something after the photos of Breezy Point burning to the ground were seen around the world,” Addabbo said. “It spurred economic growth out of all that destruction. Now we’ve got the best momentum we’ve had in decades, maybe ever!”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr