As acting CEO, president, and commissioner of the New York State’s Empire State Development, Eric Gertler runs the state’s economic engine. The former executive chairman of U.S. News & World Report and managing member of Ulysses Ventures is also the regional captain of the Long Island Control Room, charged with helping to reopen the region’s economy from the coronavirus shutdown. He talked with the Press about his agency’s changing role, adapting in crisis and reopening LI.
What are your priorities for the agency as president and CEO, and have they changed in the wake of the pandemic? When you go through a crisis, they need to change. You need to respond to the times and how a crisis is evolving. For the first 90 days, we supported combating the COVID-19 crisis. Everything we did was in support of that. Now we’re looking at how to support the opening of the economy.
What has ESD done to support the state’s response to COVID-19? We did an enormous amount of sourcing for the PPE [personal protective equipment] we needed to buy for essential workers around the state. When the crisis hit, we were involved in defining essential businesses and updating guidance. We also focused on how to help New York manufacturers of COVID-related equipment. We needed to make sure we had the necessary supply chain, including food, around the state. Those are not tasks that ESD normally undertakes. We became entrepreneurial and innovative and worked around the clock.
What are things you and the agency have been doing on Long Island? We are looking to support small businesses. Small businesses are critical to New York State. They represent 98 percent of the businesses we have. A lot of businesses, particularly those with under 20 employees, didn’t get federal money. We created the New York Forward loan fund to get loans to small businesses, particularly MWBEs [Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises] in need of financial support. And infrastructure. There are important infrastructure projects on Long Island, including the Belmont Park arena. Focusing on infrastructure, on jobs, is critical as to how we support the economy.
What’s been your experience as captain of the Long Island Regional Control Room? The Control Room has been an important part of assuring that the opening of Long Island goes smoothly. The key to the control room has been to understand the pulse of what’s going on so we can be ahead of the issues and monitor the region, so we can open up safely and keep tracking important data in a way that allows us to open smoothly and not pause.
How is managing the Long Island Control Room been different than other regions? I think the key here isn’t that the managing is different. We’ve been able to learn from other regions that opened up prior to Long Island. Other than New York City, Long Island was the last region to open up. We’ve learned from what other regions went through. You learn about specific issues with business, what people face when they go back into offices. You can write guidelines, but how are they being applied? What are the issues? Where are people feeling frustration so we can manage that? What were the issues for outdoor dining? A hundred things allowed us to ensure that each phase of Long Island opens up smoothly.
What’s the biggest change for you, going from the private sector to the public sector? On a personal basis, there’s a great sense of being involved in meaningful work and a mission. You get to do that, to be part of that in government. Nothing replaces every day being able to help people, to make the state, the community, society better. On a day-to-day operations basis, in the private sector, your thinking is more linear. You do this deal, invest this money and go forward. In public service, at this level, you need to be thinking almost three dimensionally. You need to understand the agency, how this will affect the community, where the pressure points are. You don’t contour everything in terms of projects. How do you make sure you get everybody, and the right people, as part of the projects to make a difference?
Are you optimistic that New York State’s economy will rebound from the recession caused by the coronavirus, and if so, why and how? I am optimistic that the state economy will recover, that we’ll return to the heights we were experiencing before. But I don’t think it’s going to necessarily be easy. I don’t think it’ll be the same. As the governor has pointed out, we’re going to reimagine the economy. Things will be different. I think there will be different types of investments in businesses of the future. As the governor has pointed out, we are New York tough. At the end of the day, the people will fuel the economy. And I have the highest degree of confidence in the people of New York State. I’m optimistic, but also a pragmatist. We’ll have to work too. But I do see a rebuilt, reimagined New York State economy.
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