I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the future of Mount Vernon. There’s a lot to accomplish in the present, but as an elected leader, part of my job involves positioning our city for future success. My background is in construction and education, so I’m always thinking about the importance of a solid foundation on which to build. This is no different than how we should approach government. Anything built on shifting sand will crumble and fall. So, the first challenge is to determine whether we are standing on solid ground.
How do we measure if our city is moving in the right direction? Is there any particular metric that is more important than others? Some people will point to crime statistics as an interesting measure, but that only suggests that we’re doing “less worst” than we were. That’s barely something to celebrate. Personally, I am always more focused on whether people are working. That is always a sign of good things to come for a city.
When I look at Mount Vernon’s unemployment numbers, however, I am very concerned. If you look at the percentage in the abstract (5.1% for February 2019), it seems innocuous. However, if you put the number in context, things become clearer and more troubling. Mount Vernon’s unemployment rate is 17% higher than the State of New York and 35% higher than Westchester County. While the official unemployment numbers are coming down everywhere, Mount Vernon is clearly not keeping pace with our neighbors in terms of employment.
The “official” unemployment figures suggest that only 5 people in 100 are out of work, right? Well the “real” number maybe 4 times that amount which is closer to 1 in 5. The official statistics suggest there are only 1,700 people unemployed in Mount Vernon. But, if you peel back the numbers removing those under the age of 18 and over 65, also, those who are on disability, we’re left with about 9,000 folks who are not working. Even if we were to assume that half of those folks have a good reason not to want a job of any kind, you still have the effect of almost tripling the unemployment rate (to 14.6%), which, is a very generous assumption. If you just deal with able-bodied people of working age, the number is even higher at (22%). Either way, the “real” number is 3 to 4 times higher than what is reported.
I focus on employment because it has such a huge impact on what we can do together as a city. When people are working, they are using fewer city resources allowing those finite resources to go farther to help those who are really in need. They become net contributors to the city. They spend money in the city. They look to buy homes in the city. They pay taxes in the city. This allows a city to do more with more, instead of less because of less. Employment can break the cycle that often leads to that other oft-quoted statistic “crime” especially when we get our young people working.
There’s only one way to increase employment in our city and that is to increase “employment opportunity” in our city. We can sit back and hope our neighbors create enough new jobs to put our people to work (while we watch them spend money in those other cities and hope we get some scraps), or, alternatively, we can put our own people to work. The only option I can comprehend requires two parallel initiatives: focused economic development initiatives and workforce training.
First, we must make development, especially “commercial development”, a priority in our city. We need to establish an “Office of Economic Development” to support existing small businesses and new businesses coming in to our city and make sure they receive all of the benefits available to them at both the city and state level. Moreover, we need to leverage the strengths of Mount Vernon, particularly its access to major highways, homes, and workers, to bring new businesses into our city. Let’s not start with trying to woo Amazon to Mount Vernon. Let’s start with movie theaters, car dealerships, shopping centers, hotels and all of the other types of business that refuses to invest in our city. It’s simply unacceptable that a city of our size cannot attract the basic commercial infrastructure it requires. If we want business to come, we need to let investors know that we as a city are “open for business” and are willing partners in helping their investment succeed. We’ve done a terrible job of that in the past years and the results are all over the city in vacant lots, decrepit buildings and empty commercial spaces. If we don’t change the way we interact with the business community, no one will or should invest in Mount Vernon, and the problems you see now will only get worse.
Second, we need to make a real commitment to educating and re-educating our young workforce to give them the tools to succeed in a competitive employment environment. I have been training young people for a decade to work in the construction trades, creating almost 1,000 new workers with good-paying jobs. It requires dedication and effort, nevertheless the results are there and they can be replicated in other industries. We need to get our kids trained in industries that are growing. Increasingly, they are coming out of school without enough tools to even hold down menial jobs, let alone the types of jobs that can provide them with a lifetime of work. We can attract talented training facilities to Mount Vernon, if we’re willing to support them in their efforts. Young people want to work and it’s not a myth. But, they will stay on the sidelines if you don’t convince them to get in the game. In my experience, the best way to do that is to give them the tools to play in that game. They will take care of the rest.
We want to build Mount Vernon. We can all agree on that. But, before we do, let’s make sure to shore up our foundation first. I’ve got a plan to do that, one that will set the stage for Mount Vernon’s next generation of success.
If you have thoughts or comments about this issue or any other, reach out to me at ADWCMV@gmail.com.