By GREGORY ZELLER //
Invention, and reinvention.
They are the manifestation of creativity and the heart of innovation. True today, on a Long Island staking a claim as a leading biosciences hub; true a half-century ago, when a unique combination of potato farms and cutting-edge aerospace defined an otherwise sparse suburbia.
The current leadership of the Long Island Business Development Council, which turns 50 this year, is a reinvention of sorts – a forward-thinking team handpicked by the founders of the LIBDC, itself an invention of necessity.
Reigning Co-chairmen Edward Mirabella and Theodore Sasso have seen Long Island in its myriad forms, and they’ve seen the LIBDC evolve to keep up. “The mission never changes,” Mirabella notes. “But how we do it … that morphs a bit.”
The mission, from the beginning, has been the unabashed support of regional economic growth – attracting new business, retaining legacy companies, ensuring ink for the East End, where tourism can always use marketing help.
Neither of the current co-chairs was there in 1969, at the very beginning, when the Long Island Association spun off a new entity dedicated to formalizing the Island’s business-development efforts.
But the founders – including the LIA’s Ford Bartlett and Fred Merill, Long Island Business News Publisher Paul Townsend and Gurney’s Inn owner Nick “Monte” Montemarano – had a truly forward-looking vision, and it wasn’t long before Mirabella, Sasso and dozens of other recruits were looking eye-to-eye.
Business leaders like Townsend and Monte weren’t the only ones with a keen interest in developing Long Island’s economic chops. A who’s-who of regional government officials – including Town of Hempstead economic-development chief Roy Cacciatore and the commerce commissioners of both Nassau and Suffolk counties – were part of the young LIBDC’s very first meeting, held in September 1970.
The combination of business executives, lawmakers and other regional stakeholders proved powerful – and attractive to the likes of Mirabella and Sasso, who both migrated to the development council quickly after joining Long Island’s business community.
Recruited directly by Townsend, Sasso joined in 1979, while he was helping to establish a regional office for Chicago-based commercial real estate kingpin Cushman & Wakefield. Mirabella joined a year earlier, a “rookie banker on Long Island,” he says, making business loans for Long Island National Bank in Hicksville.
“I was a meeter-and-greeter and a joiner from Day One,” the co-chairman recalls. “I had to know who all the players were.”
About a decade into its run, all the players were already to be found in the LIBDC. By 1980, with the current co-chairs still getting their feet wet, the upstart council was already fulfilling its own promise by uniting key rainmakers in inventive ways.
“We’ve always attracted a variety of people with different roles in life, and they’ve always fed off understanding each other and what we’re all about,” says Sasso, a 53-year real estate veteran now running Sasso Commercial Real Estate Services in Melville.
“You go to one of our meetings and 80 or 100 people are in there, all listening to each other and interacting with each other,” he adds. “Most professional organizations don’t do that, provide the variety of disciplines that we provide – and because of that, we’ve always been kind of Long Island’s think tank.”
Adept at adaptation
If mixing-and-matching has been the LIBDC’s backbone, its brainstem has evolved by understanding its audience.
Sasso, who became co-chairman in 1995, looks back on the early contributions of LIBDC veterans like former Suffolk County Economic Development Commissioner Joe Giacalone and one-time Town of Hempstead Commissioner of Industry & Commerce William Heins, “and the senior official from LILCO and the builders and the brokers and the bankers and the real estate people and the major educators…”
And he knows that ever since the development council split off from the LIA in the 1980s, the LIBDC’s two biggest strengths have been its ability to attract the primary players of the day – and its keen understanding of precisely whom that is.
“I have always found that the Long Island economy is a work in progress,” Sasso notes. “And because of that, we never really fell down a hole like Detroit did, and Pittsburgh did, and so many other areas of this country.”
Not even when the vaunted aerospace industry went wheels-up toward the end of the 20th Century. Long Island, of course, was an aerospace hotbed during and after World War II, with tens of thousands of workers and a starring role in NASA’s moon missions; many lament the departure of Grumman and other major aerospace manufacturers as a historical blow to Island socioeconomics.
But not Sasso, a former chairman of the Town of Hempstead Industrial Development Agency and real estate director for two Fortune 500 companies who believes closing the aerospace door opened many others on Long Island.
“[The departure of aerospace] clearly gave birth to a rapidly expanding tech sector,” he says. “And now, Long Island is one of the top five or six tech regions in the country.
“Computer Associates, Grumman Data Systems … these things were born on Long Island,” Sasso adds. “The bar code was invented here. Brookhaven National Laboratory and the technologies they work with are totally unique.
“One door closes, another door opens … that’s what we do on Long Island, and that’s the kind of people who’ve always come to the LIBDC.”
Mirabella, whose 43-year career in commercial banking includes his 2006 launch of Wantagh-based corporate consultancy Mirabella Associates, agrees that changing with the times has been a primary métier of the LIBDC.
Long Island was “nothing but land,” particularly to the east, when he joined the council in the late 1970s. “You put a stick in the ground,” Mirabella notes, “and a building grew.”
But by the time he succeeded former Long Island Business News Publisher and Innovate Long Island founder John Kominicki as co-chairman, following Kominicki’s passing in 2017, the Island’s face had significantly changed – and the LIBDC’s functionality had followed.
Not its mission, which stayed true. “We still try to provide all components of the deal,” Mirabella says. “We’re still working to provide financing, still helping businesses put deals together.
“But our membership has grown tremendously,” he adds. “Now, if I need to reach out to someone in Hempstead or Islip or Huntington or any of the towns or counties, I can just pick up the phone and get answers.”
As reinventions go, this was a textbook case of adapt-or-die. New York State business development is an infamous regulatory minefield, by some measures worsening as the years tick by.
In the 1980s, for instance, industrial development agencies doled out tax-incentive packages without the scrutiny they face today, and regional development soared, with positive ripples across local commerce. But “now we live in a different world,” Mirabella notes, “and big business is not our friend anymore.”
And that’s just one example of how changing times require the multidimensional expertise that only a multifaceted organization like the LIBDC can provide.
“There are a lot of new rules and regulations coming out of the Statehouse these days, and that certainly makes it more difficult for service providers,” Mirabella says. “The banking industry went through it, and now other industries are, too.
“Business leaders are constantly looking for help understanding the new regulations,” he adds. “And that’s where we come in.”
Bodies in motion
Soon enough, that will be where Mirabella and Sasso step out, as well. With the LIBDC preparing for its 50th Annual Business Development Conference (Sept. 25-27 at Gurney’s Star Island Resort & Marina in Montauk), the co-chairmen are already looking ahead to the next cohort of LIBDC leaders.
“When Roy Cacciatore got near retirement, he talked about the next generation of LIBDC executive directors and brought people like Ted and me along,” Mirabella notes. “Now that we’re getting up there in age, we have to worry about diversifying the board with young blood.”
With that in mind, the development council’s current nine-member Executive Board boasts a groundbreaking cross-section of professions, including its co-chairmen and Town of Islip Economic Development Executive Director William Mannix, New York Business Development Corp. Senior Vice President and Regional Manager Richard Amsterdam, Advantage Title Client Manager Denise Angiulo and Innovate Long Island President Marlene McDonnell.
Also serving on the board: Cook Maran Client Advisor for Commercial Insurance Nancy Bloom, JRS Architect Vice President of Business Development Kathy Pasquale and Islandia-based attorney Andrew Presberg – a collection of expertise and systemic knowledge carefully assembled to “get the job done for the next 20 years,” according to Mirabella, “to achieve diversity, and to attract young talent and fresh ideas.”
And ultimately, adds Sasso, to “provide a real understanding of the different things that affect the lives of the people of Long Island.”
“You go to other business organizations, including some very fine organizations, and everyone in the room does the same thing,” Sasso notes. “But we have all sorts of different people talking about all sorts of different things that affect our regional economy.”
That’s always been the LIBDC’s greatest attribute – the ability to recognize changing business-development needs, to network with those who can address them, to evolve as the region’s socioeconomic needs evolve.
Invention, and reinvention.
“Membership growth has never been our intention,” Sasso says. “We want to continue to grow the LIBDC’s usefulness. Its purpose.
“Long Island is big and vibrant and uniquely self-sufficient – kind of like a big incubator,” he adds. “It keeps reinventing itself. So, the LIBDC keeps reinventing itself, too.”