Historic Area Seeks Fresh Vigor

The island retains scenic beaches, but its eroding economy needs help.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FROM Great Neck and Valley Stream on the western fringes of Long Island to the fashionable Hamptons some 100 miles due east, the message is coming through loud and clear: Long Island - the region 17th century Dutch settlers called "Lange Eylandt" - needs a rejuvenation of political teamwork, regional planning and, most of all, new jobs to overcome the impact of the economic downturn.

To an extent, business and political leaders are responding. For example, the Long Island Lighting Company (Lilco), the area's main utility, and the New Long Island Partnership, a business, government, labor group, have begun an extensive advertising campaign urging businesses to relocate to the island.

"Long Island has a $40 billion annual economy and we want US companies to know that," says Bruce Germano, manager of the economic development department at Lilco.

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Even the most cursory visit reveals Long Island as one of the most picturesque areas in the United States. Tourists spend more than $2 billion on the island annually. Yet the recent recession hit the local economy hard. In contrast to the rapid economic growth of the 1980s, the island has been losing more jobs than it has been gaining. The area's main industrial employer, Grumman Corporation, has fallen on lean times, reflecting cutbacks in US defense programs. Grumman alone has lost more than 10,000 job s in the last five years.

Day-to-day life can be challenging on the island. Main roadways are clogged with rush-hour traffic. Conservationists fight running battles to prevent commercial encroachment into the remaining open spaces of the island. And energy costs and property taxes are among the highest in the US.

Long Island comprises four counties. Two of them - Kings County (Brooklyn) and Queens County (Queens) - are part of New York City. The island has a total population of about 7 million people. But when most people refer to "The Island," they really mean Nassau and Suffolk Counties, well beyond the urban blight of parts of the Big Apple.

Nassau and Suffolk counties, which make up most of the 125-mile long island, are home to 2.6 million people. A million people work in these counties in 85,800 businesses. Charming homes and lavish estates dot the North Shore, the famous "Gold Coast" described in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." Along the North Shore can be found homes of industrial and political nabobs: Sagamore Hill and Oyster Bay, where Teddy Roosevelt once held court; or the modest 43-acre "country home" of William K. Vanderb ilt Jr., now a museum. The Whaling Museum, reflecting the area's fisheries past, is also nearby.

On the south side are dazzling sandy beaches and parks, stretching from Jones Beach to Fire Island and out to the Hamptons, where the super-rich can be found hobnobbing with writers, artists, Wall Street stockbrokers, retail clerks, and secretaries from the Big Apple.

Sag Harbor, at the east end, was designated the port of entry for the US by President George Washington. The famous Montauk Light House, at the island's farthest tip, dates back to 1795.

For much of America's history Long Island remained lightly populated. After World War II, however, hundreds of thousands of ex-GIs and their families moved there - spurred in part by the development of Levittown, in the middle of the island, with its low-cost housing. Other towns sprang up. Many first-generation Americans settled. Today, the three largest ethnic groups are those of Italian, Irish, and German heritage. Blacks, Hispanics and Asians are now moving to the island in larger numbers, according to Roy Fedelem, a regional demographer.

The Island is largely self-sustaining; only 1 out of 4 workers commutes into New York City for employment. Light manufacturing firms include plastics and electronics companies. The federal government's Brookhaven National Laboratories is a leader in scientific research.

Unfortunately, most politicians do not see any quick turnaround in the local economy.

"We expect continuing economic difficulties for the balance of this year and probably part of 1993 as well," says Lee Koppelman, executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board. Mr. Koppelman says he believes that the island's economic pluses - its proximity to New York City, its skilled labor force, and excellent school systems, including 20 institutions of higher learning - provide a solid base for future growth.

Still, many experts would agree with Roger Wunderlich, editor of the Long Island Historical Journal, that at least two major steps are needed before the island is once again on an upward economic curve: "Politically, there must be some sort of unification - one voice for the island - instead of the diverse county, regional, and local government entities that now compete with each other," says Dr. Wunderlich, a professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "Second," he adds, "we need to us e our existing skills and wealth to develop new products, new industries, rather than just relying on the industries of the past," such as aerospace and defense.

Wunderlich, notes for example, that Grumman has research under way on developing a maglev system, a form of rail transport in which the rail cars rely on magnetic levitation and do not actually touch the tracks. But maglev, Grumman officials say, is still just a research project and a long way off.

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