By Mark Hallum
Business is booming in the Rockaways following Superstorm Sandy, but there is still much work to be done by those who have returned to the peninsula after the disaster, a new report from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli says.
DiNapoli celebrated the optimistic results of the report, which showed record employment and business sales, with elected officials who represent the 10 neighborhoods comprising the Rockaways on March 23.
“People are returning to the Rockaways because it’s a great place to live,” DiNapoli said. “With record job growth, a newly rebuilt boardwalk along the Atlantic Ocean that attracts millions of visitors, and several economic developments projects in the pipeline, the Rockaways are coming back. Today’s report shows how far the Rockaways have come, but it also highlights the challenges that remain.”
What are some of these challenges?
The report said transportation is still a major obstacle for residents who experience some of the longest commute times in the city, averaging about 52 minutes. Although ferry service launched by the city, which is slated for expansion, has proven to be popular and a new Select Bus Service route offers another alternative, the subway still remains largely unreliable.
State Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) said even though the economic end of the report is bright, homeowners are still having issues in the rebuilding process as well.
“Residents are increasingly active in communities throughout the peninsula and some businesses are growing at levels higher than before the storm, but more still needs to be done,” Addabbo said. “Too many homeowners are having difficulties with the rebuilding process, and transportation to and from the peninsula can be arduous for residents. Even with these hardships, the future for the Rockaways is a bright one, and even brighter if we work together.”
Private sector jobs in 2016 blew the prior 2011 record out of the water by 400 with about 14,900 people employed in the Rockaways and remained strong in the first quart of 2017, rising by 4.6 percent, according to the report.
State Assemblywoman Stacy Pheffer Amato (D-Rockaway Beach) has been pressuring the MTA and EZPass to create an amnesty program to alleviate the burden on people who have been slammed with fines she claims are unfair to users of the Cross Bay Bridge between the Peninsula and mainland Queens.
“Though we might still have some challenges, lack of transit options and unnecessary tolls, the Rockaway Peninsula is like none other in the world. I was raised here and I’m raising my family here,” Pheffer Amato said. “We love the vibrant diversity in our community that draws new people here. That’s why this community is growing, why people who came to rebuild after Sandy are staying for the long haul.”
The Rockaways are also experiencing a population boom. The 2000 to 2012 record high of 128,400 dropped by 16 percent following Sandy, but has recovered with about 127,400 in 2016. About 90 percent of these people, however, work outside the Rockaways.
City Councilman Eric Ulrich (D-South Ozone Park) said the investments made in the communities and economies of Rockaways are new for the previously overlooked communities.
“When Superstorm Sandy devastated the Rockaways, I vowed to do everything in my power to help those communities rebuild. Nearly six years later, the Peninsula has made a remarkable recovery,” Ulrich said. “For decades, the residents of Rockaway were underrepresented and lacked a voice at City Hall, but today – our future is brighter than ever before. Historic investments have been on every corner of the Peninsula, allowing this community to thrive. While there is still work to be done, our progress and resiliency is inspiring.”
The City Council also recently voted to rezone 23 blocks in downtown Far Rockaway to expand affordable housing and community services, which Councilman Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton) praised.
“The Rockaways are seeing a resurgence like never before,” Richards said. “With investments in affordable housing, infrastructure and new commercial development, people are no longer coming just for the beaches, they are coming to live, work and put down roots for their families.
With a fifth of the population in the Rockaways below the poverty level, it has the 13th lowest median household income in the city at $44,000.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall