By GREGORY ZELLER //
The congratulations were plentiful and the praise for Gov. Andrew Cuomo thick, though rainmakers heralding the opening of the new Long Island Welcome Center Thursday morning had good reasons to celebrate – 7,800 of them, in fact.
That’s the number of daily visitors, arriving in more than 5,000 vehicles, predicted to check out the rest-stop deluxe, located on the eastbound Long Island Expressway between exits 51 and 52. And that makes the Welcome Center a key component of the Island’s tourism industry, which the state pegs as a $5 billion concern and, according to Thursday’s speakers, has plenty of room to grow.
Lieutenant Gov. Kathy Hochul shared podium time with New York State Department of Transportation Commissioner Matthew Driscoll, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and other regional leaders, officially cutting the ribbon on a $20.2 million project that’s been not-very-long in the making.
Compared to typical Long Island construction projects, the 15,200-square-foot center was built lightning-quick – Gov. Andrew Cuomo only announced construction in June – including renovations of an existing rest-stop facility, the paving of a 135-car parking lot and the creation of a sound-barrier wall to assuage the concerns of some local residents (the DOT also has banned buses and tractor-trailers from the center).
The Welcome Center, which features a new Taste NY Store spotlighting regional food and craft beverages, is expected to have an equally speedy effect on the regional economy, according to the cavalcade of officeholders and activists trumpeting its arrival Thursday.
Hochul – who noted New York State has welcomed 234 million tourists since 2010 – said she has some “selfish” reasons for welcoming the Welcome Center, referencing some 90 trips to Long Island over the past two years.
“I’m on track to break 100,000 miles of travel as lieutenant governor,” she said. “Many of them are on the road here. You can count on seeing me in this facility.”
Economic development is the big picture here, the lieutenant governor added, noting Long Island’s tourism industry was “very well represented” at the 2016 New York State Tourism and Craft Beverage Summit, held this week at Albany’s Empire State Plaza. The region was championed at the summit by Kristen Jarnagin, president and CEO of the Long Island Convention & Visitors Bureau and Sports Commission.
“Everybody wanted to get in a car and come down to Long Island after hearing her talk,” Hochul said. “There’s a lot going on here.
“And those of you who live here might not have a huge appreciation for what’s happening across Long Island,” added the Buffalo-area native. “Sometimes, it takes another person to come here and say, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got here. It’s magnificent.’”
The Welcome Center will promote tourism with traveler-information materials and electric car-charging stations, along with WiFi-enabled work stations, a multipurpose room and an outdoor picnic area. It also features Department of Motor Vehicle kiosks for tasks like driver’s license renewals and will maintain a constant law-enforcement presence, courtesy of the Suffolk County and New York State police departments.
The center’s biggest draw figures to be the Taste NY store, which insiders hope will generate an economic three-punch combo – supporting Long artisan food and beverage makers, Island agriculture concerns and, of course, regional tourism.
“This is very exciting for us in Suffolk County, one of the largest agricultural counties in the state,” Bellone told the audience. “This not only supports tourism, but another major sector of our local economy, our farms and other producers here.”
Like others at the podium, the Suffolk County executive – whose sun-splashed victory lap stood in stark contrast to the much darker day developing in Nassau County – heaped tributes upon Cuomo, calling the expedited Welcome Center “a concrete example of the commitment Gov. Cuomo has to Suffolk County and Long Island.”
“We’ve heard talk of projects like this through the years, and it couldn’t have happened without Gov. Cuomo,” Bellone said. “The state has been a critical partner in helping to spur economic opportunity for our residents.
“We’ve been fortunate in this county to have a friend like Gov. Cuomo.”
Driscoll noted the Welcome Center was built in a “very sustainable manner,” highlighting the facility’s LEED certification, the 99 solar panels strewn about the site’s footprint and “many recycled materials” used in the construction.
The DOT commissioner also praised the quick work of several contributing agencies and organizations, including the Long Island Contractors Association.
But while completing the Long Island Welcome Center so quickly certainly took a team effort, the speakers unanimously focused their gratitude on Cuomo, including Long Island Regional Economic Development Council co-Chairman Kevin Law, who noted “it usually takes a year at least for development projects here on Long Island” and “this happened in months.”
“This Welcome Center has been talked about for decades,” said Law, also president of the Long Island Association. “Sometimes, you just have to bring people together. That takes leadership, and leadership starts at the top.”
However the Long Island Welcome Center came to be, “tourism is an essential driver of the economy,” according to Bellone, and the state-of-the-art center “will serve as an important introduction to the splendor of Long Island.”
“It is essential that we continue to make advancements like this that attract residents and visitors alike,” the Suffolk County executive said. “This reflects the very best of the Long Island community.”