“This is an exciting day for Jamaica, and an exciting day for the entire city of New York,” said Congressman Gregory Meeks at the unveiling of plans for a new 80,000 square foot commercial property that, if built, will house a number of retail locations right next to Jamaica Station. Like Meeks, a long line of politicians and real estate developers have come to the corner of Sutphin Boulevard and Archer Avenue claiming a new rejuvenation project that will make downtown Jamaica a destination neighborhood. But it’s been a tired and twisted tango between local officials who seek to better the surrounding area and the residents who have heard this time and time again for the past 30 years.
PANDERING TO THE MASSES
In 1997 federal buildings were built in an effort to revitalize the downtown image. But the drab, fortress-like buildings added little to the neighborhood’s character. The vast number of white-collar workers from the buildings seem to disappear after work and are rarely seen shopping in the low-end retail shops that dominate Jamaica Avenue.
In 2003, the Greater Jamaica Development Company (GJDC) announced its commitment to strengthen the image of the area by building more commercial properties. In 2007, former Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced a re-zoning plan aimed at turning Jamaica into a bustling “airport village.” Now, seven years later, Meeks is shaking hands with GJDC executives and offering promises that may not be so easy to keep.
After all, last time GJDC announced a large-scale plan like this, a number of developers from South Korea backed out, leaving Jamaica on hold for a number of years and reducing retail opportunities to a boulevard of discount stores.
The GJDC, a non-profit company that claims 501-c-3 tax exempt status, is one of the largest and most influential developers in the Jamaica community. In 2010 and 2011, they brought in $19 million, according to their most recently available 990 tax forms retrieved from Guidestar.org, a watchdog non-profit group.
For an agency that has been around since 1967 and processed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of grant funding, some critics wonder where the visible and tangible results of all this money are. Others, like Dr. Robert Parmet, a York College history professor, say the subtle changes are building in momentum.
“Jamaica was always interesting, but slightly seedy,” said Parmet. “There’s no problem with business activity, there’s plenty of that. It’s the face of the businesses that need to be addressed.” And the GJDC has helped “tremendously,” Parmet said.
But the amount of money the GJDC claims to spend on the community in their tax forms is overshadowed by the circle of poverty and drugs in the area, while the agency’s average executives salaries.
SO MUCH MONEY, YET SO MUCH NEED
Former City Councilman Leroy Comrie secured more than $6 million in government grants last year from the Department of Cultural Affairs to help renovate Jamaica’s art spaces including York’s Performing Arts Center, Jamaica Center for the Arts & Learning as well as the Afrikan Poetry Theatre.
The theater is another non-profit organization that provides a variety of cultural, educational and recreational services to the Jamaica community through Kwanzaa events, weekend art classes and concerts.
“Our summer youth programs have given the young people of Jamaica great jobs, learning experiences and have given them a look into job fields,” said John Watusi Branch, former executive director of the theater.
The funding, though, is not nearly enough. And many cultural institutions like the Afrikan Poetry Theatre claim they are not getting enough to stay afloat.
“We lost a lot of financing over the years and contributions are difficult to operate,” said Branch.
Branch passed away earlier this year and left Setou Branch, his son, acting as the ATP program coordinator. Before John passed, he had told a Pandora’s Box reporter they had still been waiting for the renovations.
Now Setou is working with the Department of Cultural Affairs, but still needs to secure the remaining $2.5 million needed to do renovations in the theater’s basement through private fundraising. And some of the larger programs that have culturally benefited Jamaica’s primarily black residents, such as the theater’s Kwanzaa celebration which used to attract over 2,000 residents, have been forced to cancel.
Meanwhile, the GJDC claims to have spent tens of millions on revitalizing and beautifying Downtown Jamaica, such as their $10 million Jamaica Center project. The money went to lighting the underpass and creating a more welcoming environment that was before “dark, repellant” and “uninviting” according to their 2010 and 2011 tax forms.
In both years, GJDC claimed over $16 million for beautifying a “large-scale transportation improvement project.” The wording on their tax forms had not changed between the two years and it’s not clear what the projects were that cost so much.
THE MILLION-DOLLAR MEN
Which is not to single out the GJDC. Plenty of other nonprofits are handsomely compensating executives while the neighborhood seems to benefit only slightly as a whole.
The average household income for Jamaica is $45,000 for a family of three – which is about $50,000 less than the cost of living for a family of four in New York City – and despite the $3.5 billion that flows through Jamaica in non-profit funds annually, the benefits continue to only be seen at the top as the money flows up to directors and executive board members. In 2010 and 2011, the top 10 Jamaican nonprofits paid 67 executives $42.7 million in salaries, according to tax filings posted on Guidestar.org.
Thomas Galante, President of the Queens Public Library, has been under investigation after the Daily News exposed his $400,000 a year salary along sharing contracts with his cronies.
But Galante’s salary is common among Jamaica’s high-earners, especially because the median income for Queens’ top quintile is $341,000 as of 2011, which means the richest people in Queens are working in Jamaica.
St. John’s University, a private Catholic college, can claim tax-exempt status from the government because of its religious affiliation and board members also reap the benefits. Executive Vice President, Chief Operations Officer and Treasurer of St. John’s, Dr. James P. Pellow, made $745,000 in 2010 while Vice President and Secretary of the University, Dr. Dorothy Habben, made $225,000 in 2011. The average salary for the remaining board members at St. Johns University is $480,000 per year including bonuses.
Jamaica Hospital Medical Center’s executives have also been sitting cushy, despite a string of city hospital closures, which pays its board members six-figure salaries ranging from $300,000 to $884,000.