BY BENJAMIN FANG
For the last five years, Superstorm Sandy and the devastating aftermath of the hurricane defined the Rockaways.
Thousands of homes and businesses, along with roads, sidewalks and other infrastructure, were all damaged; local families were displaced.
The boardwalk was destroyed, the water supply was disrupted, and power outages lasted weeks. The subways were out of service for months.
But the peninsula is recovering. Slowly, but surely, homes were rebuilt, businesses came back and the boardwalk was resurrected. Though the resurgence is visible to many local officials and residents, they finally have the numbers to back it up.
In March, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released an economic snapshot of the Rockaways, more than five years after the storm. The main takeaway is that the Rockaways is on the rise again.
According to the report, private sector employment in the area set a new record with 14,900 jobs in 2016 after dipping 11 percent between 2011 and 2013. The growth has remained strong through the first three quarters of 2017.
Similarly, despite business sales plummeting after Sandy, sales reached $149 million by 2016. That rise exceeded the Rockaways’ pre-storm level by almost 35 percent.
Even the population recovered. The Rockaways saw a 16 percent drop in population two years after the hurricane. By 2017, the population jumped back to 127,400, just a tad shy of the record set in 2012.
“What this report really shows is the resilience of this neighborhood,” DiNapoli said on Friday, when he unveiled the findings of the report at the Rockaway Institute for a Sustainable Environment (RISE).
The comptroller said his office conducts economic snapshot reports to give stakeholders, including elected officials, community leaders and residents, useful talking points to advocate for their community.
“It’s an opportunity to really look at a point in time,” he said, “and see where a community is at.”
The report looked at the economic trends in the community. For example, it concluded that job growth rose by 4.6 percent last year, more than twice the citywide rate.
It also determined that health care remains the largest employer in the area, accounting for 39 percent of all private sector jobs. More than half of the jobs gained between 2013 and 2016 were in the fields of health care, bars and restaurants, and personal services, such as hair and nail salons.
The number of businesses in the Rockaways has also increased to 1,215, 11 percent more than before the storm hit. More than four-fifths of those are small businesses, with 10 employees or less. But big companies, with 100 or more employees, provide 49 percent of all private sector jobs.
Though the conclusions were positive overall, the snapshot also presented some challenges the area still faces. One particular issue is economic inequality, which shows the gaps among the 10 distinct communities.
For example, Belle Harbor has an average household income of $138,200, while Edgemere’s household income is a mere $30,400. Combined, the Rockaways has a median income of $44,000, the second lowest in Queens.
According to the report, more than one-fifth of Rockaways households are below the federal poverty line, and one-third of the peninsula’s children lived in poverty.
Another concern is that despite the unemployment rate falling from 14.2 percent in 2010 to 9 percent in 2016, the Rockaways’ rate is still the third-highest in the borough. Nearly 18 percent of Edgemere remains unemployed.
Transportation remains an issue for residents. Despite the new ferry service and Select Bus Service (SBS) offering new modes of faster transportation, residents still had the longest commutes of all 55 neighborhoods in the city.
Roughly 90 percent of residents work outside of the Rockaways, which means most still have long commutes to their jobs. The toll on the Cross Bay Bridge is another burden on residents and visitors alike.
And despite the rebuilding of many homes, the report concludes that the peninsula is still vulnerable to flooding.
“You hope that the information, the data we have in this report, will help this community move forward in dealing with those challenges,” DiNapoli said.
Local elected officials attested to the importance of having hard data on hand. State Senator James Sanders Jr., who demanded that the Rockaway communities benefit from the revamping of John F. Kennedy International Airport, said this report helps make that argument.
“Data must drive growth,” Sanders said. “We have to have smart growth, and reports like this enable us to do that.”
Councilman Donovan Richards said, historically, there has been a lack of investment and development on the peninsula. But thanks to $288 million in city funding, downtown Far Rockaway is being revitalized.
A former 200,000-square-foot mall that was vacant and dilapidated will be demolished and rebuilt as community facilities, health care centers and new reail.
“Those opportunities can exist because we’re not doing what we did in the past, where the strategy was just to build housing and nothing around it,” Richards said. “We are now building the essential necessities to really build a full community.”
Affordable housing is also coming to the Rockaways as part of its revival. Richards noted that more than half of Rockaways residents are rent-burdened.
The councilman said there’s no shortage of interest in developing Far Rockaway. The important part is figuring out how to “cultivate it to make sure it works for everyone,” he said.
Richards said he wants to find opportunities to build for the existing community, and address some of the challenges residents in neighborhoods like Edgemere face.
“I think 10 years from now, the numbers, especially the disparities, you’re going to start to see them decrease a whole lot more,” he said. “I’m happy with where we’re going. Rockaway is truly rising.”