‘Scary optimism’ as local business girds for 2017

Quality paneling: Robert Quarté, managing partner of Hauppauge accounting firm AVZ, and panelists at Thursday's annual economic-forecast breakfast.

Long Island business leaders gave the local economy a resounding thumbs up on Thursday, predicting growing revenues, profits and pricing power at an annual economic forecast breakfast hosted by accounting firm AVZ.

The less good news: 58 percent of business managers responding to AVZ’s accompanying economic poll said they have no plans to hire additional workers in 2017, and 5 percent said they expect to cut staff during the year. Another 42 percent said they already had openings they couldn’t fill, including everything from laborers to executive positions. Two percent of respondents said they planned to move their business off Long Island during the year, double last year’s number.

But that didn’t diminish overall enthusiasm for the local economy, which poll takers rated at 6.3 out of 10, the highest since 2004.

The event’s speakers showed more measured enthusiasm, with moderator Robert Quarté, the accounting firm’s managing partner, expressing what he called “scary optimism” as President-elect Donald Trump takes office. Still, the panelists said they saw opportunity in the incoming president’s plan to increase infrastructure spending, which could quickly create jobs and spur the economy. Trump’s plans to streamline the federal government were also popular with the panel, which included architectural firm H2M CEO Rich Humann, Northwell Health EVP Jeff Kraut and James Lester of Forest City Ratner Cos., the firm redeveloping the Nassau Coliseum.

Nassau Community College President W. Hubert Keen, the former Farmingdale State College president, was an able last-minute stand-in for the ailing Drew Bogner of Molloy College.

Although President-elect Trump’s plan to unravel Obamacare is a clear threat to big hospital systems like Northwell, Kraut said he remained bullish on healthcare, noting America’s aging population and the coming scientific and medical advances he believes will continue to revolutionize care.

“If you love change and uncertainty, that’s what healthcare is all about,” he said. “We’re not going to allow what’s going on in Washington to dictate our strategy.”

Upheaval or no, the hospital system expects to post 13+ percent growth in top-line revenue in 2017 and add between 2,000 and 3,000 jobs across the system in the next two years, Kraut said.

That should be welcome news to poll takers, who continue to point to health care as the post-Grumman anchor of the local economy, despite the sector’s generally low salaries. 42 percent of respondents said they now consider health care the Island’s best economic hope, up from just 17 percent in 2012. Technology was second at 30 percent.

Like most Long Island business events, the discussion soon turned to the region’s cost structure, including taxes and housing costs, which make it difficult for companies trying to relocate talent to the region. Northwell’s Kraut expressed particular frustration over the sticker shock facing young scientists considering a move to Long Island, which he said is one of the health chain’s biggest personnel challenges.

The costs have also significantly boosted brain drain among local millennials, which will make up 75 percent of the national population by 2025, although almost certainly not here.

“It would be different if the talent pool was already here, if Long Island was a hotbed of talent, but it’s not,” H2M’s Humann noted. “Our efforts to create the things that would make people want to stay here have been patchwork and spotty. Sputtering. We’re significantly behind where we need to be to accommodate the new generation and what they want.”

This is the 23rd edition of the AVZ survey. Among questions not directly related to the economy, 41 percent of respondents correctly predicted that the New England Patriots would win this year’s Super Bowl.

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