RCBJ Talks With County Executive Ed Day About Clarkstown’s Permissive Referendum On Nov. 3rd Ballot Allowing Palisades Center To Build Out Unused Space
Q. Why have you been an outspoken champion for Clarkstown to hold a permissive referendum asking voters to allow the Palisades Center to expand? This is, after all, a town vote but it is an issue that presumably affects the entire county.
A. First, this is not an expansion; it is permission to use already existing unused internal space. While the decision to lift the restrictive covenant is a Town issue, it will have an incredible impact upon Rockland County as a whole. The Palisades Center is Rockland’s number one tourist destination, drawing 24 million annual visitors, with 76% of those visitors coming from outside of Rockland. And with increases in online shopping, venues like the Palisades Center are in a pitched battle to remain viable.
The Palisades Center and the businesses within it employ nearly 5,000 people, most of whom live in Clarkstown and right here in Rockland. As elected officials we have a responsibility to support the people and businesses of our communities and must do everything in our power to ensure their success.
Lifting the restrictive covenant is a no-brainer. Allowing for the use of already existing space to improve offerings at this property is a win-win for everyone involved. Construction jobs would be added during any buildout, more permanent retail/entertainment jobs added afterward, and more attractions to draw more tourists and their cash to Clarkstown and Rockland County.
Q. Please put into context the specific economic impact the Palisades Center has on Rockland County taxpayers and why COVID has deepened your concerns about the fate of the mall?
A. In 2019, the Palisades Center paid $21.4 million in property taxes, generated over $22 million in local sales tax revenue (which is approximately 10% of County sales tax collected) and employed nearly 5,000 people. All these factors show how important an economic engine this property is.
I have been reminding all those involved to come to an agreement to avoid a situation similar to what arose in North Rockland, where the inability of elected officials to come to terms with a large property owner kept the matter going through the courts. That resulted in something that should send chills up the spines of local taxpayers … the Mirant settlement. Whatever has to be done to avoid a sequel to that $200 million-plus fiscal disaster must be done.
COVID-19 has had and continues to have a negative fiscal impact on Palisades Center and its tenants. I was an advocate for lifting the restrictive covenant well before the pandemic hit. It is even more important now that local government (and in this case the voters of Clarkstown) do everything that they can to help Palisades Center and the businesses within it.
Q. You’ve floated the idea of raising the sales tax to offset COVID-related losses. Do you think that would have a negative impact on the mall?
A. The temporary sales tax increase was just one part of the comprehensive fiscal plan I submitted to the Legislature to address what all see as a fiscal tsunami, but I do not believe it would negatively impact Rockland businesses. The impact of the change would be an additional $0.05 on a $10 purchase, an additional $0.50 on a $100 purchase or an extra $5 on a $1,000 purchase.
Removing the restrictive covenant and advancing the redevelopment of Palisades Center will create many positive economic benefits for Clarkstown and Rockland County. That is why I am supporting the unanimously approved resolution that put the referendum on the ballot.
Q. Do you think Clarkstown’s elected officials should openly state their position about the referendum questions, and use their efforts to help persuade voters?
A. Yes, I do. The Town Board’s 5-0 vote in favor of the referendum is in itself a strong statement in favor of lifting the restrictive covenant. I have been very clear about my own preference on this matter and feel it is the duty of all elected officials to lead for the benefit of the community as a whole. This is especially true as we work to collectively address the economic harm caused by the pandemic.
Q. There’s a lot of mixed feeling toward Palisades Center – some people love it, some despise it, some say they’re not a good neighbor. As the leader of this county, who wants to see the referendum passed so the mall can expand creatively, how would you advise the Palisades Center to communicate with the community on this issue – or should they remain silent?
A. First, love it or hate it the Palisades Center is here to stay, and it is a major economic driver for our community. As a Civic Association President, I was originally an opponent of the mall’s construction. But now its closure would lead to a financial disaster for Clarkstown, the Clarkstown Central School District and the County. As taxpayers who would be directly impacted, Clarkstown residents would be voting in their best financial interests by approving this referendum.
I believe the Palisades Center has been clearly communicating their value to the community, both this year and every year in recent memory. They play host for countless non-profits for fundraising and events. They’re currently offering space to US Census workers to help encourage people to fill out the 2020 Census which decides where billions in Federal funding is distributed. Whether they communicate specifically about the referendum or not, it is clear to me that they are a good neighbor and as such we should support their efforts to reinvent their space and stay relevant in a changing retail landscape.
Q. A lot of people say: the mall has so much empty space, why do they need more. How would you answer that question?
A. While there is empty space in the Palisades Center it may not be configured properly for the unique attractions or new tenants that they are working to bring in. Brick and mortar retail is not going away, but it is going through a period of dramatic change. Given our evolving economic landscape, and particularly the ongoing changes in the retail sector, it’s important to allow mall owners the flexibility they need to stay viable. In the case of the Palisades Center, we need to give them the freedom to use this existing space to improve their offerings. In my mind, there is no downside to allowing them the same freedom other property owners have in our area.
Q. What lessons have been learned from this situation – a major taxpayer, restricted for 20 years from building out. Would you say retrospectively that such restrictions tend to build bad blood and ultimately cost towns the money it takes to defend themselves in court?
A. I think we all need to focus on the situation as it currently is. Whenever possible, I believe these types of situations should always be resolved outside of the court system.
Q. Finally, if you had a crystal ball, would you say the referendum will pass – and if so, why? If not, why not?
A. I believe this referendum will pass. The people of Clarkstown understand that they need to do what’s best for their future and their children’s future, especially as we all seek to mitigate the harm caused by the pandemic. Allowing the Palisades Center to use this space and adapt to the changing retail landscape will bolster their chances of continued success which is critical to not only the future of Clarkstown but of Rockland County as a whole.