Bringing back downtown in Farmingdale, Nassau County NY (S1E1)

Farmingdale is a bedroom community on Long Island, New York. A once thriving factory town, by the 2000’s it had become a shadow of what it once was. A largely empty downtown wasn’t attracting much interest or shoppers and large commercial buildings were laying empty. But, the local Mayor along with other government officials realized something had to be done to turn the town’s fortunes around. They had one big thing going for them. They were a commuter stop on the Long Island Railroad and daily thousands of people traveled into and out of Manhattan. They created a brownfield site out of abandoned warehouses, turned the area into apartment buildings that were attractive to young professionals working in New York City and soon the retailers and restaurants followed. Listen to how all this happened, how the new business owners have built successful operations and how the Mayor continues to lead the way. Join David and Carol as we visit Farmingdale, New York.

Transcript of The Farmingdale Downtown Restoration (S1E1)

David: This is the good government show.

Tony Kathreptis: It kinda was like a ghost town would be the best way to describe it. That was 2010. There were a lot of restaurants and businesses that were closed down. This place had nothing of nothing.

Carol: That’s how Tony Kathreptis describes the village of Farmingdale on Long Island when he was thinking about opening a Mexican restaurant there. It wasn’t a great idea way back then, but more than a decade later, that area downtown Farmingdale has been revitalized and it’s really thriving.

David: That’s the story of this episode of The Good Government show. This is how a good idea, revitalizing an entire downtown, turned into a good government project. And that’s the story on this episode of Good Government Show. It’s how different parts of government came together, saw a problem, fixed it and brought in new businesses, new residents and revitalized the town.

Carol: I’m Carol D’auria and your host.

David: And I’m David Martin, your co-host. Welcome to the Good Government show on this podcast, we’re going to tell you all about the many ways the government gives truth to that old saying, I’m from the government. I’m here to help you. Really, it’s true. Just ask the folks in Farmingdale. That’s what we did.

The sponsor of the good government show is liquid.

Carol: And we love liquid and not just because they are the sponsor.

David: Well, that’s why we love them, because they are the sponsor. But liquid, what they are, is they’re a digital marketing and technology company. And what they do is they help other companies find their customers and they engage them digitally. One of their customers was a fifth generation business, and Liquid got involved and helped them tell their story and highlight their rich history on their new website that Liquid created.

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Carol: That’s right, Liquid has a full creative staff. They find out where each customer’s clients live online, whether it’s Facebook or YouTube or LinkedIn, whatever it is. The bottom line is Liquid helps their customers with a full digital marketing campaign.

David: And that’s why we love liquid and because there are a sponsor. But we really do love liquid at liquid. They make digital work, so check them out on the World Wide Web at liquid INT dot com. That’s Liquid INT dot com.

So we’ve talked a little bit about Farmingdale already, and it sounds like, you know, you went visited a really thriving community. But that wasn’t always the case, was it?

Carol: It wasn’t always the case. For a while there, downtown Farmingdale was a series of boarded up stores, boarded up restaurants. Not many businesses were viable. There was a pizzeria, not too much else and not a lot of people.

David: What did Farmingdale have going for it, though?

Carol: What it had going for it was transportation. It had a stop on the Long Island Railroad.

David: That’s a big deal?

Carol: It’s a very big deal. The Long Island Railroad carries 92 million people every year in and out of Manhattan, and it happens to have a stop right in Farmingdale, Long Island is known as a bedroom community. Because people live on Long Island, they sleep there.

But to make their money, many of them have to go into Manhattan and you cannot drive. You have to take the train. And so to have a stop right where you live is great. You can walk from your home right to the train station.

David: And now they have they have a whole lively community there.

Carol: A whole lively community that they built around this train station. It used to be a place with vacant warehouses, and that was really a problem. It was ugly to look at.

David: So who decided, you know, how did this start? Who did you talk to and who got this whole thing kicked off to change the town?

Carol: I started talking to the mayor and went.

David: Right to the top.

Carol: Right to the top. We don’t fool around. And what he explained to me was they had all these vacant buildings, old warehouses. They weren’t doing anything just sitting there, and it created what’s known as a brown field. And when you have an area like that, I… as a municipality, you can apply for some seed money and they use that money to start the wheels in motion to turn the place around.

David: And I’m guessing that the village didn’t do this on their own. They had to work with other parts of the government. How did other parts of government come together? Who else did you talk to?

Carol: I spoke to the county executive and she explained to me how she worked hand in hand with the village officials to make this happen. And the mayor, Ralph Ekstrand, was right there from the very beginning.

Ralph Ekstrand: Prior to the revitalization. The area around our train station was desolate factories and warehousing. The largest area was the Old Hill supermarket warehouse that was vacant and rundown and decaying. The building was close to being condemned.

Carol: What about the stores in the in the village?

Ralph Ekstrand: The stores in the village were vacant and empty because there was no thriving economy. The malls at that time, the malls were our biggest culprit, taking shoppers away from our downtown. The mom and pop stores just couldn’t compete with the malls at this time.

We couldn’t get foot traffic on Main Street. We had to find a way to get foot traffic back on Main Street. So we, in the village to village government, changed the zoning around the train station and areas of our downtown to make it mixed use where we have now retail shops on the ground floor and two or three stories of apartments on top.

David: So in a project this massive this doesn’t happen alone, just with one village. Who else got brought into this picture?

Carol: It took a lot of cooperation. The village had cooperation from the county. Now it’s called Nassau County, and the county executive is Laura Curran. And she said that it was really the mayor, Mayor Ralph Ekstrand, who had the vision and also the courage that was needed to make the different changes.

Laura Curran: If you go back about seven years and you walk down Main Street in Farmingdale, it was kind of sad. It was bleak. Every other storefront was closed. There was nothing going on. It was depressing. So the mayor decides to approve and he gets his board to approve multi-unit housing right by the train station.

It’s on a great train line, Farmingdale. It’s it’s got a wonderful train station, so. You know, there’s sometimes a resistance to do this kind of dense housing, denser housing in suburbia. You know, people are concerned about the quality of life.

But his point, and I think I would agree, is that you the way to preserve our quality of life, to keep suburbia viable is to build up our downtowns to create the kind of housing that young people can afford and that they want to live in.

So fast forward six or seven years, it’s built there. It’s a beautiful development. Hundreds of apartments right by the train station. You can literally run downstairs and jump on the train. But something beautiful happened, and that is the blossoming the re renaissance of this downtown.

You walk down the street and there’s restaurant after restaurant. There are shops. There’s a wonderful sneaker shop. There’s places to go out and get a drink. It’s vibrant, it’s fun. And you know, one of the biggest problems is you can’t find a parking spot on a Saturday night.

That’s a good problem to have. So I really take my hat off to Mayor Ekstrand and to his board because you know what? It wasn’t easy for them. They there was a lot of political opposition. It it’s one of those things where it seems that everyone’s ganging up on you and saying this is a terrible idea.

And then you do it. You get it done. And everyone says, Wow, you’re brilliant. This was a great idea.

David: So you went to Farmingdale. You told me a little bit about this. I heard you went to Farmingdale. The first thing you did was you got a massage.

Carol: Absolutely. I had to take care of me.

David: You got a massage. Good. A little me time in the middle of a story reported. That’s good.

Carol: Absolutely. And it’s always nice to have an expense account. I used it.

David: All right. So you got a massage? Tell me about.

Carol: Massage. I did. I got a wonderful massage.

David: A wonderful massage.

Carol: I kept my clothes on. This was the hand massage, but it was wonderful.

David: OK.

Carol: And I…

David: Can I benefit from a hand massage.

Carol: I think you could. You think, but my hands will always be better.

David: Yes, you’re much softer.

Carol: I went to a place called Scrubs Body Skin Care Products and the operator. The owner is Roberta Perry. And hers is really and I saw it. It’s a place to pamper yourself. And she started this business. It’s interesting 15 years ago, but not in Farmingdale.

She lived and worked about eight minutes away. And it was a business that was going along, but not really happening, as they say, in the business. So she needed a place with a little more umph. But as her customers were coming in, she was getting this vibe, this buzz about a place called Farmingdale.

David: So, so the town was getting the word out. They were talking to people. You know, people were hearing about this.

Carol: Little by little as new businesses opened in Farmingdale because they were making it user friendly for businesses. People would go to lunch and then they start to talk. I was here, I was there. So Roberta Perry was hearing about this and she said, You know what?

I have to check it out. And she says it really changed her business for the better.

Roberta Perry: The combination of watching this town grow and saying, You know what, I need a change pushed me to make this humongous move. And so I moved here and we were welcomed. Literally, these business owners came in and they’re like, Thank you for not serving food.

We’re so happy to have a retail business. Love it. The people are great.

Carol: So in terms of percentages or dollars, whichever way you measure it, how big has your business grown?

Roberta Perry: Oh, we have. I mean, we pivoted in different ways, too. But the combination of parties in this space that we’re sitting in now, obviously having a gorgeous store that I had a great architect and contracted to build it with me, I would say we pretty much just about doubled truly in three years.

Carol: What is it about Farmingdale that makes it work?

Roberta Perry: It’s a combination of, it’s a town where people come back to to live. They grew up here. They raised their family here again, they come back again. And so it’s this big town, small town feel… the train station, the restaurants, a parks, a town, a village in the summer there’s a whole farmer’s market. I mean, it’s got that hometown feel in the middle of suburbia that I adore.

Carol: And it attracts young people with disposable income.

Roberta Perry: That was really the whole idea was what I had heard is how they’re bringing people out of the city. And then again, now what’s happened. What’s amazing is how it’s exploded, too. But yeah, the building that my store is particularly in, I would say the average age is about 35.

But like again, my mom’s in her eighties. I’m dying for her to move here, you know, because once she doesn’t drive anymore, you know, she can have town to work in. So, you know, you’ve got that from 30 to 80, and everything in between was kind of cool.

David: So it sounds like people are doing well now. The mayor, he’s he’s he’s a businessman in town as well. And how are things going for him?

Carol: Well, that’s just it. His business is booming. He owns the only drug store in downtown Farmingdale. It’s called Moby’s and his business has really increased so much, and so he is delighted and he’s happy because the business owners are happy they had government working with them hand in hand.

Ralph Ekstrand: With this revitalization over the past six years. We have brought in over 300 apartment units and over 500 new tenants, which relate to being shoppers on our downtown. Just just think of a downtown district that’s only about three blocks long and you bring captive audience of 500 people into that shopping area. It thrives. The anchor store for our downtown revitalization was Croxley’s, there’s was the first ones that came to Farmingdale. They were chain small business chain of approximately six restaurants on Long Island.They were the first one there. The anchor store is right on the corner of the railroad tracks and Main Street. Their business has gone so well that they bought the old electrical warehouse behind them and converted it into a beer garden.

We’ve had vacant buildings that have just been desolate. The new the owners came in, tore down the buildings, made it a brand new state of the art retail on the bottom and housing on top right in our downtown and restaurants have gone in. Pubs have gone in. We have a tremendous amount of foot traffic because of that. The rundown storefronts have got new facade. They’ve gotten new signage, new lighting. We put in all new wainscott light poles, Victorian lighting. We hang banners and flowers from them throughout the year.

So it’s it’s all about getting foot traffic, walking up and down your downtown.

Carol: And the train. How did the train help this?

Ralph Ekstrand: We can get you into Penn Station from our train station in 46 minutes in the morning. So you would now have a 46 minute commute into Manhattan. There’s no need to drive into Manhattan. Besides going to Manhattan, there are various large businesses you would transfer to go downtown Brooklyn, for example, the Barclays Arena.

Carol: And the housing.

Ralph Ekstrand: The village already had seven senior citizen housing units, so we tried to gear it for the youth on Long Island. The demographics show that the majority of the people that are renting the apartments are 40 and and under the young people, they go out to eat.

They they they just came home off the train. They don’t want to cook. Hey, let’s go to Croxley’s and have a beer and some wings. Let’s let’s go to 317 and have one of them that delicious monster burgers.

You know, we don’t want to cook. The restaurant business is the restaurants, pubs, eateries are the best ones to thrive in this area because they generate enough money to pay the rents and the taxes where our own local government so we can control the growth, we can control the zoning, we can control the approval of whether you can put up a building on a specific lot or not. And we can determine if it’s beneficial to downtown by you doing so. That’s where local government is the best type of government and by getting the businesses in the increased foot traffic, the thriving of the businesses from the 300 plus apartments that have come in, it’s all it all melds together. All those factors meld together into a successful downtown.

David: Wow. Well, it seems like you’ve got a great cheerleader in Farmingdale with the mayor. Where else did you go?

Carol: Oh, I went to so many places. You know, there is this fantastic bakery there. And so if we will go in and get a cup of coffee and maybe a donut. But what I found out is in the basement is a speakeasy. It’s called Charlotte’s Speakeasy. So who would have thunk it?

David: A speakeasy at a bakery?

Carol: Exactly.

David: So you could get like, a canoli and go downstairs.

Carol: There you go.

David: There you go. All right. That works for me. So you walked around town. You must have had a meal. Where did you go?

Carol: Well, I did work up an appetite so they would.

David: Well, with that massage, taking all so much out of you. I’m sure…

Carol: I went to a place called 317 Main Street, and this also has a great story. It has a famous chef owner and he was on the TV show Chopped the Food Show. And would you believe he beat Bobby Flay?

David: Well, many people beat Bobby Flay.

Carol: No, they don’t. But you can see this guy in action. The way his restaurant 317 Main Street is built, you can see him cooking in the kitchen and he’ll even come and talk to you.

David: So it’s a big one of those big open kitchens.

Carol: It’s like an open market. It’s wonderful. And they have a bar there. They have also bakery goods. It’s in the in the back.

David: I’m seeing a bakery scene, Carol, with it’s a farming town. Yeah, who who doesn’t.

Carol: Like have to save up your calories before you go to Farmingdale?

David: What did you have there?

Carol: So I had soup.

David: Soup.

Carol: And again. Well, here we go with the calories. I was counting my calories, so I didn’t want to eat too much. But they have a wonderful dessert cart, and it’s so cool because it’s made out of a tree trunk and it has different plates on it. Then you can see the different desserts and they wheel it around to you. So I was in heaven.

David: Wow! So what does he think of what’s going on in town?

Carol: The chef, owner of 317 Main Street, is really happy. This was a great investment that really paid off for him.

Chef Eric LeVine: I think it’s a really cool vibe. You could walk up and down the strip and find something for everybody, whether it’s, you know, food or flowers or chocolates or really just a little bit ice cream, you know, whatever it is that people are looking for. You can find that here. So it could be a simple, a simple winged burger bar. It could be a steakhouse. It could be, you know, Mexican food. It could be what we do as a gastropub. So there’s a lot to offer here downtown.

Carol: So what is your house specialty?

Chef Eric LeVine: Variety. I think the biggest specialty for us is that we have something for everybody. So we do tacos and ramen. We do vegan dishes. We do seafood, local seafood pastas. So there’s a little bit of something for everybody.

Monster Burgers, our signature burger, which is a couple of our house blend burger stacked with chorizo so fried onions, fried pickles, coleslaw, cheddar. But it’s a monster. We call it the monster because most people can’t finish it, but we have some cool, other cool options and, you know, seasonal menu.

So we offer that we offer a lot of great certified black angus steaks or tomahawk, which I would go to the table and carve tableside. We have some really. I mean, our staff is amazing. They’re very interactive with our customers having the chef’s table here in the open kitchen.

People come up all the time and if you want to just say hello and talk and have in the fact that I’ve been on one Chopped and beat Bobby Flay and have done some Travel Channel stuff, they want to come say hello.

It’s a fun thing for me as a chef. It’s a weird thing, but it’s fun. You know, when you interact with customers and I try to once we slow down, I walk around the dining room to touch base and touch with our customers to make sure that they’re enjoying the dining experience.

David: Do you feel like the town is your partner? Do you feel like as a result of all what the master plan was for the town that has really made a difference for you?

Chef Eric LeVine: Oh, definitely the town and the town. The mayor has been amazing for us as a business for all the business in the area. He’s very pro-business, which helps grow the economy, which helps grow jobs, which I think is great.

And Laura Curran, she has been nothing but stellar for us as a business. I think that the town has been on a on a on a roll for the last few years. And as things have gone by and what people come to the area, we’re just we are another or a bigger player in the town to bring more people for another reason than to the town. So everything sparks each other. There’s people who come in. I have customers of mine from New Jersey who come in and they see what’s going on in the town. They’re going to come back and go to another establishment that brings other people into the area.

You know, you have different options here and with the florists, even the, you know, the five and dime type stuff. When people see those options, they see it as a reason to come to town.

David: OK, so you got to tell me about this monster burger? Could I finish a monster burger?

Carol: I think you would do it justice. Not me, but definitely David.

David: Well, you’re much littler than me.

Carol: Yes. Yes. You could really wrap your mouth around this thing.

David: But he says people don’t finish it.

Carol: No, he claims, nobody’s finished it.

David: Nobody’s finished it.

Carol: So therein lies the challenge.

David: I don’t know. Why are you challenging me to eat a monster burger? Are you challenging me? Great.

Carol: You eat the monster burger. I’ll get the dessert.

David: All right. So I guess we have to go to Farmingdale and I have to eat the Monster Burger. All right. Well, you know the things you have to do, but you got to talk to the people who live there too, right?

Carol: Oh, it did. And that’s just it. It’s alive. There are people walking around. And so sure enough, I bump into John and Lisa. This is a young couple. They were looking for a place to live. And sure enough, they found downtown Farmingdale, Long Island.

It had just the right mix of things they needed. They worked in New York City, but lived in Farmingdale. What brought you to this area?

John: Convenience with the train and also, you know, the shops and everything on Main Street.

Carol: The downtown attracted?

John: You. Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. Downtown neighborhoods seemed to be up and coming easy to get to work, and it’s pretty lively. There’s a lot going on on Main Street and around the neighborhood so…

Carol: Can you explain that a lot of people.

John: A lot of people, they used to do a lot of what they used to do on Main Street.

Lisa: It was like a light festival, with concert people playing live music, then shut the whole street down. It was like a fair, so it was really fun.

John: Yeah.

David: It really does sound like this. Town has something for everyone. Lots of green space. Lots of place to walk. People can hang around.

Carol: And that’s just it. This open space where people can. Take a stroll after dinner or maybe a walk on a Sunday afternoon. That’s a big draw for people. And Laura Curran, the Nassau County executive, she believes that that’s what’s key.

The government heard what people wanted, listened and the government saw what the problem was, what people wanted and they fixed it.

Laura Curran: Yeah, it’s really important for government to respect business and understand how businesses work. I think all too often, people who make policy, you know, they haven’t had to make the payroll, they haven’t had to make the rent. They don’t know the struggle.

They also maybe don’t understand how smart these people are and how they are natural problem solvers. And so, you know, yes, we, you know, government has a function. We need public safety. We need sewage. They’re very important functions that we have, you know, plowing the roads, snow, all of that.

But to to understand and respect business and do what we can to make their jobs easier benefits everybody. It helps create jobs and it makes your place more competitive than other places. And we really we rely on them.

I mean, when I think about the county, 40% of our revenue is sales tax receipts. So we when when you say we’re in this together, we really are, we sink or swim depending on how our businesses do. So let’s help them do their jobs as best we can.

David: Well, thanks for that look at Farmingdale, New York. That’s what this show is all about good government solutions to problems and make people’s lives better. In future episodes I’m going to tell you about a clean water solution down in the Florida Keys, and I’m going to go visit with a bunch of veterans in Oregon who all play music together. It’s almost like a form of music therapy for these guys. Carol, what have you got for us?

Carol: You know what? I’m also going to be talking to veterans. I’m going to be talking to women veterans in Texas. They needed help there, and they were able to get it from their government. I’m also going to be going over to Pennsylvania and talking to farmers and what they did with their local county government to preserve farmland.

David: So tune in to shows in the future and you can hear about all those stories and a lot more. Tune in wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. I’m David Martin.

Carol: And I’m Carol D’auria.

David: See you next time on the good government show.

The good government show is a Valley Park production. Jason Stershic, is our editor and producer. Associate producers are Jade Ludlow and Mackenzie Martin, the executive producers of the government show are Jim Ludlow, David Martin and David Snyder.

Join us again right here for another episode of The Good Government show.