James Bernstein


Sam Ash: A Family In Harmony

Sammy Ash, chief operating officer of Sam Ash Music Stores, was named after his grandfather, who founded the company nearly a century ago.

Sammy Ash is a third-generation music retailer, with 45 years in the business that was started by his grandfather, Sam Ash, a violinist and teacher, in 1924. Sammy and his team have built the company into one that boasts 45 stores, 1,600 employees and 250 music teachers. Sammy is head of customer service and is responsible for all physical aspects of the company. That includes opening new stores and designing the stores. He has lived on Long Island all his life, and now resides in Suffolk County with his wife and two sons, Alex and Jason.

Have you worked for Sam Ash all of your life? I have been working for the company for more than 45 years now. I did everything from clean the bathrooms, drive and load trucks, warehouse, sales, sales manager, manager and so on. Our father made sure we knew every single aspect of the company.

What is your title now? I am the company chief operating officer. I oversee all physical aspects of the chain, I build and move the stores. I am also head of customer service. There has been an Ash on the other side of the phone, now email, for 95 years, and that will not stop any time soon. If there is a problem that the stores can’t fix, I fix it.

How old were you when you started at the company? I started getting paid on the books at 15. Prior to that I got paid in hot dogs and a few bucks my father would give me.

What did you do before working for Sam Ash? I was a rebel and I didn’t want to work for “my daddy’s business,” so I parked cars, tried pumping gas, anything my friends were doing.

How many stores does Sam Ash have now? We just opened up our 47th location in Jacksonville, Florida. It’s a 16,000-square-foot beauty with all of the benefits and features of all Sam Ash Music Stores.

Your grandfather started the business. Can you talk about his business plan? Goals? Do you think he would be pleased with the company today? My grandfather wasn’t much of a business man and didn’t have a lot of goals except to see that his bills were paid on time even in the Depression. It was my father and Uncle Paul that had the vision to become a chain. It was my brothers and I and a few very trusted members of our team that took it the rest of the way.

If you attend a wedding or a bar mitzvah these days, you hear a lot of electronic music, operated by a DJ. You don’t see a lot of instruments, and I love instruments. How has this affected your business? DJ is a rather small part of the overall music business. It is a segment of our live sound business. Yes, it is very popular in the bar mitzvah/wedding circuit, but in the overall scheme of things musical instruments still dominate. I personally love a band!

When I go into a Sam Ash store, I see lots and lots of guitars. Are these your biggest selling items? We sell a lot guitars, clearly one of our biggest segments of instruments. Right now we are seeing an explosion in the sale of acoustic guitars and ukuleles — yes ukuleles! They are huge. We sell more ukuleles in one month than we did in a whole year a decade ago. Everyone loves them.

What’s the next big seller? Technology. Keyboards and recording microphones.

When I went to school back in the Dark Ages, every kid was required to play an instrument. We all went to Sam Ash to pick out our instruments. Is this still the case today? Today we have lesson centers in a majority of our stores and will probably have taught about 110,000 lessons last year. That is my fastest-growing segment. On a Saturday morning, the stores are still packed with families buying or renting all kinds of instruments. It’s still a fun visit.

Where do you see the company going in 10 years? I have two sons in the business, Ben and Max, and my brother Richard has two, Adam and Derek. I want a business that they can run together for a long time as well. They have the capabilities to bring the company into the future as a team. They work very well together.

Leaders Confident Long-stalled Redevelopment of Nassau Hub Will Finally Advance

For decades now, Nassau officials and developers have talked about redeveloping what’s known as The Nassau Hub, the area smack in the county’s mid-section, by building offices, stores, entertainment  facilities, and parks on the 72 acres of parking lot surrounding Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

The plans died each time. But now, ideas for the Hub are alive once again, and this time, local leaders and builders feel sure it is going to happen. But if all the excited talk in political and governmental circles about the Hub — on the largest tract of undeveloped land in the county, off the Meadowbrook Parkway and Hempstead Turnpike — sounds familiar, it should.

Since 1998, there have been five serious proposals to develop the coliseum parking lot into something that would include all the amenities of a “new suburbia,” as it has been described.

And each time, all the hoopla turned into nothing more than crumpled piles of paper and aging charts. One of the more memorable plans was in 2004, when then-Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi secured a bid from late New York Islanders owner Charles Wang and Long Island developer Scott Rechler to build a project called the Lighthouse. The $3.8 billion project, which was to include office towers, a renovated coliseum, restaurants and businesses, never materialized.

But in December, the Nassau Legislature approved a plan and lease amendment giving the coliseum’s operator, BSE Global, and Rechler’s RXR Realty exclusive rights to redevelop the land.

Fueling the excitement, in early February, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed to spend an additional $40 million for pedestrian bridges and a medical research center at The Hub.

“This is the closest we’ve ever come to make this happen,” a gleeful Nassau County Executive Laura Curran says.

Brett Yormark, BSE Global’s CEO, said in a statement that this may be “the last chance” to redevelop the Hub.

Supporters feel confident, in part because the Hub has acquired its first long-awaited anchor tenant. Northwell Health last year agreed to build a 225,000-square-foot research and development center on the vacant land at the corner of Hempstead Turnpike and Earle Ovington Boulevard, across from the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University/Northwell.

As a result, Long Island business leaders are breathing easier these days.

“We’re pleased to see this proposal come forward,” says Eric Alexander, director of Vision Long Island, a nonprofit that promotes smart growth. But, he adds, “Nothing is ever a done deal. The deal is open to outreach from the community.”

Developers are to meet periodically with community residents to discuss their concerns.

As it stands now, the developers propose to build a $1.5 billion project that is to include 500 units of housing, primarily for millennials, 600,000 square feet of office and biotech research space, two hotels and 200,000 square feet of entertainment venues, and out-of-the-box retail outlets.

Cuomo’s proposed $40 million for the pedestrian bridges and a medical research center bring to about $131 million the amount New York State has committed to the project.

Rechler says the current plans differ from those of the past. Under the Lighthouse proposal, he says, the coliseum was slated to be rebuilt. That’s now unnecessary since it was renovated by BSE Global, formerly known as Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment. Rechler says BSE Global and RXR have accepted the “low-density zoning requirements” of Nassau, requiring more open space, adequate parking, and walkways.

And, Rechler says, the project has bipartisan support. The Nassau Legislature voted 19-0 late last year to approve the Hub plan.

“We should have the first shovel in the ground in the next 18 months,” Rechler says.

Not everyone is happy. Richard Cardozo, president of the Carman Community Organization in Westbury, says the organization’s members are uneasy.

“Nobody wants to make this the sixth borough,” Cardozo, says. “And nobody wants the traffic. But it’s going to happen. The powers that want to do it are so big.”

He acknowledged that Nassau would benefit from construction and other jobs the Hub will bring. But, he says, “The philosophy seems to be that open space is a bad thing.”

The deal still has a way to go.

Developers must enter into a labor agreement with local building trade unions. They must also submit quarterly project updates and hold meetings with the public. Still to be worked out are financial details for Northwell Health’s so-called Innovation Center. And, the developers say they will need subsidies from Nassau to offset taxes in the building of residential units.

That is something county legislators are not anxious to approve, as residents pay some of the highest taxes in the country. The question remains: Will this time be different?

ProHealth Dental CEO Norton L. Travis: Advancing The Needle

Norton L. Travis is chief executive officer of ProHealth Dental, which operates multispeciality dental offices on Long Island and in Queens, New Jersey, and Westchester County. Its mission is to promote the importance of oral health as an important element of overall health. Travis worked as a lawyer, specializing in health care, for more than 25 years before assuming his current position in December 2015. He was also project coordinator and a consultant for the New York Proton Center. a cancer care center in Harlem, for which he helped raise $350 million. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

How do you define ProHealthDental? Well, let’s start with just ProHealth. ProHealth is a large, physician-driven organization that provides a full range of health services. Three years ago, there was a decision made that ProHealth should also provide dental services. ProHealth Dental is a separate organization from ProHealth, but our business model revolves around treating a person’s whole health. At ProHealthDental, we are all about attaching the mouth back to the body so we can provide full-health services.

What’s meant by “attaching the mouth back to the body?” Taking proper care of the mouth has an enormous effect on someone’s overall health. Our model also calls for us to educate the public about oral health.

But you do treat cavities, right? Yes, of course. If you look at a lot of dental practices, they are a lot about dental cosmetics. We do that, too. But we want to be the kind of dental office where people learn to lead healthy lives. It’s astonishing how many people on all socioeconomic levels are not leading healthy lives.

What’s the problem with getting people to do that? It’s first of all convincing them to see a dentist. Many people have a fear of dentists. The difficulty is also the way the healthcare system is set up. There is little, if any, insurance coverage for dental care. People seem to think there is little connection between overall health and dental care. The Harvard School of Dental Medicine is one of the few in the country breaking down the chasm between dentistry and medicine. They are very definitely connected. We have developed a clinical affiliation with ProHealth. We can coordinate care. It’s a proven fact that poor dental care has a major effect on people with cardiac problems, obesity and sleep apnea.

So how do you coordinate with ProHealth? We start at the intake process. We provide the latest technology to detect oral cancer. We … [ask patients] about possible sleep disorders. We do blood-pressure screening. We ask patients if they have a primary-care physician. We don’t just look in a patient’s mouth. If there is going to be a germ of some type in a person’s body, it’s going to be seen in an oral examination.
Can you give us an example how the coordination works? Well, there is a pediatrician’s office across the hall from us. One of the pediatricians saw something in a child’s mouth that concerned her. Her office asked us if we could see the child [in our office]. One of our dentists said, No. I will be over there in a second. And she was.
Why don’t all dentists adopt the same whole-health methods you do? It starts in the medical schools. Other than at Harvard Dental School, they don’t teach a lot about overall health. The problem is also exacerbated by the insurance companies. People seem to feel that, if there is limited dental coverage, dental issues can’t be all that important. We are working with Medicare to try and convince the federal government to cover periodontal disease. Studies show that if Medicare covered periodontal disease, less money would have to be spent later treating the conditions that result from periodontal disease.
Why do you think there is such little coverage for dental treatment? It’s historical. Remember, people used to get their teeth taken care of by barbers, who pulled teeth out with a string. People still seem to feel the mouth is not connected to the rest of the body.
Do you think your model is catching on? It’s just starting to evolve. Throughout the country, there are only a handful of other practices doing all of this. For us, there always has to be a mission. We believe we can run a successful practice and do good at the same time. We believe we are advancing the needle.

MTA Sees Light At End of Tunnel for East Side Access Project, But Skeptics Remain

The MTA says the first Long Island Rail Road trains to Grand Central Terminal will board in 2022. Photo by Bruce Adler

After decades of delays and billions in cost overruns, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority now says there is light at the end of the tunnel for the East Side Access Project — one of the biggest public works program of its kind in the nation — that will provide a direct route for Long Island Rail Road commuters to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan for the first time.

The ESA, as it is known, is 72 percent completed, according to the latest MTA data. MTA officials say service to Grand Central is now slated to start in December 2022. When it does begin, the service will accommodate some 160,000 riders per day, the MTA said. LIRR riders will be able to skip changing at Penn Station for the East Side, saving them about 40 minutes of commuting time, round trip.

The MTA, to bolster its claim that the project is finally coming to an end, is lately providing reporters and citizens tours of the cavernous underground where some 2,500 sandhogs work in shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A Long Island Press reporter and a photographer went underground recently for a tour.

The tour begins with a brief walk through the elegant Grand Central, filled with commuters rushing to work and others eating at the station’s classy cafes. We proceed to a metal door on the lower level.

As soon as the metal door opens, the grandeur of Grand Central quickly vanishes, replaced by subterranean darkness, the pounding of heavy machinery, dust, smoke, dim lights, tracks, mud, and MTA tour guides shouting to be heard above the din of construction.

We are about 140 feet below Park Avenue, and what we see through the half-light are clean slates of walls, made of stone imported from Turkey and Italy, and cut and molded in the U.S.  

The underground complex doesn’t look anywhere near finished, but the MTA says the December 2022 is “set in stone” and will be met.

We see tracks laden with mud. The MTA used gigantic boring machines to push through centuries-old bedrock, to build eight tracks and four platforms. There are escalators that look like magnetized ski slopes, jutting down 90 feet to a concourse that will house retail shops and a dining area.

“This is going to be a huge economic benefit to Long Island commuters,” says John Rizzo, the chief economist for the Long Island Association. “It will facilitate people’s ability to work on the East Side and increase real-estate values in Nassau County. ”

David Kapell, a consultant to the LIA, who was also along for the tour, labeled the project “Long Island’s Brooklyn Bridge,” opening access not only to the East Side, but allowing commuters to make quick jumps to trains to Westchester County and New Jersey.

We walk up and down steps, ride in a construction vehicle, and finally come upon some muddy tracks and a platform. One day, commuters will be here, we are told.

This is a project decades in the making. Planners began to talk about it as long ago as the late 1950s. Plans came and went. Initially, the entire project’s cost was put at $3.2 billion. The cost tripled, and is now pegged at over $11 billion. Poor management over the years, plus rising labor and materials costs, are said to be the reasons.

Chris Jones, the Regional Plan Association’s senior vice president and chief planner, said the initial time and cost estimates should never have been given wide credence.  

“It was never going to be done as first thought,” Jones says. He noted that the ESA project and the Second Avenue Subway were the first major projects the MTA undertook in decades.

But, he says, the ESA “is a project of major benefits. You start with the amount of time it will save for thousands of commuters.” It is estimated that it will relieve overcrowding at Penn and will create more capacity and flexibility in the entire rail system.

Even now, there is some concern as to whether the 2022 opening date will be met. Mark Epstein, chairman of the Long Island Commuter Council, says a survey of the project — determining more precise costs and a beginning date — has not been done in a decade.

“I don’t think they [MTA officials] know” full costs or when the project will be done, Epstein says. “We have been calling for a new study … It’s an incredible project. But there are a lot of unknowns.”

Aaron Donovan, an MTA spokesman, says the agency regularly performs “origin and destination” surveys. He says the last was done in 2014. No survey is currently underway.

“We are discussing the data-gathering needed” for the project, he says.

Donovan adds that Janno Lieber, whom Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently appointed to oversee the ESA project, “has taken a careful look at the ongoing construction and is satisfied that all is going well, that we’re past the halfway point, and all will be completed on time.”