Last month, a reader called my office to complain that there is not enough Yorktown news in Yorktown News. Go figure.
Despite my attempts to convince him he was wrong, the man was steadfast in his criticism and kept returning to one topic: business. We don’t write enough about business. I told him we cover openings and closings, and any other business stories that may come along or emerge from government meetings.
“But what about vacancies? What is the town doing to get them filled?” he asked.
As a lifelong Yorktown resident, I knew immediately what he was getting at: “Are you talking about the Food Emporium?”
For the uninitiated, Food Emporium is a grocery store chain owned by A&P that once operated out of a 45,000-square-foot building in the Yorktown Green Shopping Center. It closed in 2010. Despite many politicians and business leaders saying over the years that filling the building was a top priority, it has remained empty.
For many, the prominent vacancy has become a symbol of Yorktown’s failure to attract new businesses. Rarely does a week go by that I don’t receive inquiries about the status of the building.
Frustratingly for both me and the reader, there is not much I can do beyond shrugging my shoulders and throwing my hands up. Like everyone else, I have heard rumors about why it has remained vacant, but nothing I have ever been able to responsibly report.
I explained this to the reader on the phone, yet he continued to insist that we write more about business. In short, his position was that Yorktown’s business community stinks and there are too many vacancies.
The phone call got me thinking and a few days later I called Chamber of Commerce President Eric DiBartolo. I told him quizzical residents want to know what’s going on with business in town and asked if he could sit down with me and give me an update on how things were going.
We met earlier this month at the Chamber offices, and it didn’t take long into the meeting before the topic of the vacancies, including the Food Emporium, was broached. DiBartolo said he often gets defensive when questioned about Yorktown’s vacancies. He said he encourages naysayers who wonder why buildings are staying vacant to “go there and research it.” If a building is empty, he said, it’s usually for one simple reason: the price is too high. “Start crunching the numbers. With any business, there is a breaking point.”
Two years ago, DiBartolo made headlines when he publicly announced that he was courting Trader Joe’s for the Food Emporium space. Sadly, DiBartolo told me that Trader Joe’s was “very close” to coming to Yorktown before it fell apart near the finish line.
Overall, DiBartolo said, business is booming in Yorktown. He said “some big vacant ones” like Food Emporium and Bed, Bath & Beyond (in Staples Plaza) make Yorktown’s problem look worse than it is, but from a square-footage standpoint, it “looks tremendous.”
“Things are definitely moving in a positive direction, I think, for the town, but not as fast as some people would like,” he said. “The town of Yorktown, as far as business goes, it’s strong.”
Margaret Primavera, director of public relations for the Chamber of Commerce, agreed with DiBartolo’s assessment.
“Most of the strip malls are full,” Primavera said. “I remember when the Triangle Center was a ghost town.”
Though some would prefer Yorktown to resemble Katonah, Mount Kisco or other walkable business districts with a quaint village feel, DiBartolo said that is not realistic for Yorktown.
“The way the town is laid out, it’s a little difficult,” DiBartolo said.
More than other Westchester communities, he said, Yorktown has a large contingent of working class residents. Because of that, he said, a business’ success hinges on “price point, price point, price point.”
“They live in Yorktown, they work in Yorktown, but they run to Peekskill for a $6 burger because it’s $6.50 in Yorktown,” DiBartolo said.
Like DiBartolo, Tony Grasso, treasurer of the Chamber of Commerce, is often frustrated by those who criticize businesses, saying most of them have never tried to “put a key in the door.”
“It takes a lot of courage to go into business,” he said.
Grasso turned the conversation toward taxes, something he is passionate about. Ten years ago, Grasso said, he completed a study that revealed that 77 percent of the town’s property taxes are paid by residential property owners, while just 10.7 percent come from businesses.
A frequent criticism of the town is its willingness to approve new developments while existing stores remain empty. Those who criticize these new commercial developments, Grasso said, are failing to see the big picture. If they prefer to keep paying more in taxes, that’s fine, but they can’t have it both ways.
Not all of the complaints are lost on the Chamber members. In regard to improvements, DiBartolo said he would like to see more streetlights in all the hamlets, saying it is especially “pitch black” on Downing Drive and East Main Street.
“I think we need to brighten it up and make it more attractive,” DiBartolo said.
Nancy Stingone, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, said the town needs to somehow attract new businesses that “connect with younger families.”
With five business hamlets and 40-plus square miles in Yorktown, it would be a full-time job to properly assess the strength of the business community. Having lived here for nearly 30 years, my initial conclusion was similar to what DiBartolo told me: There are some prominent vacancies, but the situation is not as bleak as many make it out to be.
In fact, a week after I wrote the first draft of what you’re reading now, Councilman Ed Lachterman, tasked with heading up a business consortium, independently reached the same conclusion, saying at the Aug. 8 meeting: “There are a couple of big sites open, but there’s not a tremendous amount of inventory out there.”
It’s a running joke among locals that all we have in Yorktown are pizza joints, banks and nail salons. It’s hyperbole, obviously, but there is some truth there. Though there are not many vacancies, I think we’d all prefer some variety, especially when it comes to restaurants. And who doesn’t want a Trader Joe’s in their town? I’d also love it if the Yankees played five minutes away, but not everything can be in your backyard. Sometimes you have to travel, and that’s OK.
Many of these criticisms about Yorktown emerge from Facebook, where complaining has almost become a competitive sport. Sometimes you have to sift through those types of complaints to find the legitimate ones, which there certainly are. Even so, there are people who will always want Yorktown to be something that it’s not. “The grass is greener,” etc., etc. Even if Food Emporium was filled, I suspect the complaints would largely remain the same. I suppose that’s OK, too.
Nobody has all the answers, so even if you disagree, it’s good to listen. I’m glad we have people who are passionate about business in Yorktown and I’m glad we have people who keep them on their toes.