Interview: Brooklyn Chamber Of Commerce President Randy Peers

Randy Peers Headshot
Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President Randy Peers

When Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Peers speaks about the business climate in Brooklyn and the City as a whole, there is a refreshing enthusiasm and tone to his voice that has felt strangely missing from New York City the last few years.

Perhaps, it’s because he has recently blown back into the borough, where he was born and raised, to his dream job after a few years stint as the inaugural President & CEO of the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance (GRCA) in Berks County, Pennsylvania overseeing the alignment of the Chamber of Commerce and two economic development organizations.

But it’s more than that.

It’s the same can-do spirit this reporter felt on a recent convention trip to Nashville.  A spirit seemingly gone adrift in New York City where the political mood feels like a scorched earth policy towards economic development. Perhaps this could help explain why the city is beginning to lose population for the first time in decades to new American metropolitan boomtowns like Nashville or Austin or Denver.

Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Peers.

A product of Flatlands/Canarsie neighborhoods, Peers graduated from South Shore High School and went on to get a Bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College and an MPA from NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service while living in five different neighborhoods across the borough.

Before coming to the Brooklyn Chamber, Peers cut his real-world program management teeth at CAMBA, one of the largest social services providers in Brooklyn. Following his first stint at the Chamber, Peers went onto become the CEO of Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow (OBT), a Brooklyn-headquartered workforce development organization and leading provider of disconnected youth job training services in NYC.

Peers has also been in the community trenches of Brooklyn, having served as Chair of Sunset Park’s Community Board 7, he saw the completion of Sunset Park High School and three neighborhood rezonings.

The following edited interview with Kings County Politics (KCP) took place at the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce Offices on Adams Street in Downtown Brooklyn.

KCP: Welcome back to Brooklyn, Randy. So what are your top two or three priorities now that you’re back at the Chamber?

Randy Peers (RP): Let me first lay out some context. In the last few years, the chamber has gone through a bit of change, which includes going through two presidents and an interim president, and during that time we have seen both a decline in membership and a decline in the Chamber’s ability to be the voice of the business community once again.  So with that in mind, when you think of good chambers of commerce, they do three things really well – promotion, support, and advocacy. 

Promotion is our bread and butter. How do we help our businesses get their message out about their products and services so they can get more customers? How do we do that? Networking events, marketing support, advertising and communication. That’s bucket number one.

Bucket number two is support. That’s all of our technical programs like our business solution center. We’ve been running the business solution center for over a decade. We started it the first time I was here. Its a great partnership with the city of New York. Basically if your a new entrepreneur, all the way up to if you’re a new business that’s thinking about succession planning and anything in between technical assistance wise we can help. We’re also now a CDFI – a certified development financial institute so we can actually capitalize on our own loan funds and micro-lending. So we’re strengthening or support programs. We’ve always done this really well. It’s always been a strength of this chamber.

The third bucket is advocacy – that is the big picture, sort of policy legislative issues and projects that we collectively want to tackle as a business community here in Brooklyn. I think this is an area where the chamber has kind of fallen a bit in the last couple of years. We’ve kind of been on the sidelines around a lot of these key policy issues that impact our business community. 

So let me give you an example on the project side. Industry City and the rezoning rights is a very, very important project for this borough, and in terms of the chamber support, it’s on the top of our list for and economic development project. I have a personal connection to Industry City. I was the Community Board 7 Chair [Sunset Park where Industry City is located] way back and was the zoning committee chair when Jamestown Properties took over. Andrew [Kimball – Industry City CEO]  has been a friend and we worked together when he was at the Navy Yard so I’ve helped him initially when he came into Sunset Park thinking about the longterm rezoning and dovetailing that with our 197a Waterfront Development Plan, which we also completed during my tenure at CB 7. 

So when I look at Industry city and the rezoning – to me that’s about the future and it’s about job creation and it’s about opportunity for our residents. Period. End of story. We’re talking about the difference between success which they‘ve already achieved. You went from underutilized warehouse space where most of the buildings were empty and maybe 900 employees to what they achieved thus far which is 6,000 jobs and now we’re talking about the difference between 6,000 jobs and 15,000 jobs. These are 15,000 good-paying jobs that represent an opportunity for people that live in the borough of Brooklyn and in particular for people in that community. These are my kids from OBT getting those jobs. Mostly kids of color, mostly Latino kids. We [OBT] started the incubation lab as one of the partners with Industry City so those kids could benefit from that opportunity and that’s what’s been happening, and that’s what we’ve been talking about when we talk about taking Industry City through to scale.

The Chamber as a business association cannot sit on the sidelines and not take a position on why it supports job creation and opportunity for residents in Brooklyn. So we need to step up to the plate and we need to be vocal on our support of that particular project.

KCP: So let me play devil’s advocate here. People from the community have their own ideas of the kind of waterfront development they want such as industries that deal with the green new deal…

RP: Let’s start with the fact that they don’t own the property. You can say anything you want if you don’t own the piece of property. You can say it should be Magic Kingdom. Yes, they have some other ideas of the type of things they want to produce there or not produce there, whatever the case may be but the bottom line is they don’t own the property. So explain to me how you can dictate its use if you don’t own it? How did we get to the point in public discourse where any one group gets to dictate what kind of jobs we can and cannot create in this city and the jobs people can access and not access. So this is Amazon 2. To me, this is a very dangerous precedent where we are saying a group is going to determine what a private developer on private property can produce in terms of job creation. That to me is pretty dangerous…

KCP: Do you think City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Red Hook Sunset Park) is an obstacle to getting the rezoning through?

RP: I don’t characterize City Councilmember Menchaca as the opposition. I think the council member is in a very challenging position and he’s trying to do the best he can to negotiate a  deal that’s good for the community. I may not agree with him in terms of process, but I respect what he’s trying to do and I wouldn’t characterize him as the opposition. Ultimately, he will have to make a decision. If the ULURP goes forward he will have to decide based on what he can negotiate or not negotiate as to whether he will support that it. He’ll be the decision-maker.

KCP: Ok, so that’s an example of project-based advocacy. Give me examples of policy-level issues for which the chamber will advocate?

RP: On a policy level there are a lot of legislative issues that impact small businesses that the chamber really needs to be vocal on, and all of these things independent of one another are good things, but when you look at the cumulative effect on small businesses, it is really devastating. So start with the increase in the minimum wage and you move to paid sick leave and then you move to paid time off. So these things start to accumulate and for a small business already facing a higher cost of doing business generally in New York, with excessive fines and regulations and high taxes, and you will put small businesses out of business. 

In some cases, there are those ones you can document,  but there is also an opportunity problem. How many entrepreneurs will not start a business in New York because they see all these mounting obstacles and they say, ‘you know what? I don’t want to take that risk. I don’t want to take that leap. I can pursue my dreams somewhere else. So there is a huge opportunity cost that we won’t be able to calculate.

And by the way, a lot of these small businesses we’re talking about are minority and women-owned. Sometimes we legislate for the big guys up here and we don’t think about the intent on the little guy. One of our strongest committees here at the chamber is our WMBE [Women/Minority Business Enterproses]. We did a full session this morning with Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte (D-Flatbush, Ditmas Park), who has done an amazing job on the state level transforming WMBE legislation so it’s much more effective for businesses here in Brooklyn.

And on the flip side, we work with all our legislators on the city, state and federal levels in Brooklyn. We have good partnerships with all of them.

KCP: Any final thoughts on what New York City and Brooklyn offer to prospective businesses, the role of the chamber and the future of the business community?

RP:  The biggest advantageous New York has is its highly skilled workforce and it gets stronger every day because we have very strong academic institutions that can continue to feed that workforce over time and arguably this city has made investments in tech education. NYU Tandon Future Labs is an example of that. So the new drivers of the Brooklyn economy is tech, real estate and still holding very strong is healthcare if you round out the top three business sectors. Tech workers tend to be younger and may when they think of the chamber of commerce, are probably thinking of there grandfather and nationally, chambers of commerces tend to be an old school model of business association management.

So I would say that chambers, in general, have to rethink their value proposition as it relates to these new and emerging industries, and tech and the creative economy. So one of my engagement strategies is we need to determine what is the value proposition that chambers can bring to the table for the tech sector in today’s day and age.

So we’re going to hosting some focus groups with some tech companies – start-ups as well as midterm companies to get a better understanding of what if any legislative policy issues that matter to them, and what are their quality of life issues. The tech sector likes to live work and play in the same geographic area. Quality of life and quality of place matters to them. So when you talk about things like the BQX trolly connecting the tech corridor from Long Island City all the way down to the Brooklyn Army terminal, that’s a quality of place and quality of life issue for tech. These are the ways the chamber can take a value proposition approach in the new age and appeal to the tech industry. This is a strategic priority for me moving forward because tech has become one of the drivers of the economy.