Downtown development: Jobs are Job No. 1

Rosalie Drago: Redeveloped downtowns can't succeed without proper workforce training.

The Governor’s Conference on Sustainable Development & Collaborative Governance, held Wednesday in Melville, facilitated an important dialogue around the hot topic of downtown redevelopment.

Long Island currently has over a dozen town centers in various stages of redevelopment or revitalization, so discussion on this topic is both relevant and timely.

But for downtown development and revitalization to achieve its potency as an economic engine, consideration for jobs – What will they be? What skills will they require? Who will fill them? Where do those individuals reside? – must be front and center. Plans for developing and nurturing a 21st century workforce must be advanced alongside planning for buildings, roads and landscaping.

The strategies most frequently discussed for neighborhood business district improvement focus on lowering the cost of living and creating a “destination” where residents and visitors will want to spend money and time (also known as “placemaking”).

Affordable housing and enhanced public transportation address the cost of living. An attractive and walkable streetscape, robust dining and shopping – combined with a vibrant arts-and-culture scene – fall under the placemaking umbrella.

Yes, all these are crucial … and so are jobs. With regard to a lower cost of living, even the most affordable homes and accessible transit remain prohibitive without a good job.

Every element of placemaking relies on the attraction and retention of businesses that require a skilled workforce. Preparation for and placement of town center jobs is more than an important mechanism – it’s critical to providing a fair transition for people living in an evolving downtown, as well as an incentive for Long Island residents to stay on Long Island.

Training and a host of new connections for Island residents could stem the Island-wide “brain drain” that so many companies currently lament.

Sidewalk-level businesses employ people in hospitality and retail, two industry sectors that the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council’s Workforce & Education Committee has identified as critical – and for which we have an abundance of educational institutions offering excellent training, from certificate programs to advanced degrees.

Hospitality pre-employment training developed and executed in partnership with our local educational institutions and industry – including the restaurants, hotels and arts facilities that will inhabit redeveloped downtown spaces – will ensure that we have work-ready employees, and that no one is displaced during the evolution of a town center.

Many projects incorporate artists’ residences as a way of meeting the need for affordable housing and cultural resources. Part of creating a flourishing arts environment is providing skills development, especially entrepreneurship training, for people who are part of the creative economy. Programs like the East End Arts Council’s JumpstART are already in place and serve as a model for other programs to build upon.

All downtown planning should include consideration for co-working spaces, incubators and shared maker spaces as well. Enterprises from startups to mature tech firms serve as the main source of income for many solopreneurs and their families. These essential environments – through mentoring and other programs, both formal and informal – nurture the startups to achieve a sustainable business model that contributes to a thriving downtown.

Downtown redevelopment can grow jobs across Long Island, well beyond the downtowns themselves. The positive effects of job creation extend beyond Main Street. Two other core industries the REDC focuses on are agriculture and manufacturing, ensuring, among other things, that restaurateurs are in close proximity to fresh produce, meat and fish.

Introducing these regional businesses into the downtown supply chain helps the Island thrive as a whole. The numerous manufacturers and service providers tucked away in the brick rectangles of our industrial parks can better attract and retain workers when they’re near transportation hubs and places where people can gather.

There’s no doubt: Successful downtowns require a skilled workforce, an asset that Long Island is well positioned to create. Through partnerships between industry, education and workforce-development agencies, we can build our workforce and our business districts simultaneously, so when the doors are ready to open for shoppers and diners, they’re also open to residents who’ve been given every opportunity to successfully connect with 21st century job opportunities.

Drago is regional director of the nonprofit Workforce Development Institute, which supports the growth and retention of jobs across New York State through business-improvement grants and various collaborations with industry, academia and government agencies.

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