Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Presidential Debate Stage in Brooklyn Reflects Changing Economy

By Patrick McGeehan

When Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders take the stage in Brooklyn on Thursday for their ninth Democratic presidential primary debate, they will stand amid a shining example of how the American economy has been reshaped in their lifetimes. 

The site, the Duggal Greenhouse, once thrummed with workers assembling components for the most sophisticated warships in the world. Now, it is a clean, well-lighted space rented out to investment banks and pop stars. BeyoncĂ© and Madonna have rehearsed there. 

From a distance, that evolution may seem like another attempt to put lipstick on a fading industrial legacy. But upon closer inspection, the Greenhouse is part of a concerted effort by New York City officials and a collection of entrepreneurs to revive a historic hub of American enterprise: the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The 215-year-old Navy Yard was the birthplace of some of the nation’s most celebrated and ill-fated military ships, including the U.S.S. Missouri and the U.S.S. Arizona. At its peak, during World War II, it employed about 70,000 people.

Today, only about 7,000 people work at the city-owned Navy Yard. But officials say that number could increase to 17,000 in four years, with the help of growing companies like Russ & Daughters and Mast Brothers Chocolate Makers.  

On Tuesday, Rick Mast, the chief executive of Mast Brothers, stood inside a vast, empty structure in the center of the Navy Yard, giggling with anticipation. He and his brother, Michael, had just taken over a 65,000-square-foot space that they said would become the headquarters and primary factory for their business.

Rick Mast said they planned to double their work force to about 150 people after they move into the Navy Yard next year from their base of operations nearby. They expect to hire 100 people within three years to make, package, sell and ship chocolate from the renovated building.

“The opportunity to grow in Brooklyn in a spectacular space like this, that’s huge for us,” Mr. Mast said, looking up at a vestige of the space’s shipbuilding past, an overhead crane capable of hoisting 10 tons.

The chocolate factory will abut the future home of another company founded in Williamsburg, a coffee company called Brooklyn Roasting. A short walk away, teams of construction workers are turning the cavernous ground floor of a hulking building into a food-manufacturing hub that will be anchored by Russ & Daughters, a century-old purveyor of smoked fish, bagels and babka.

Russ & Daughters will occupy about a quarter of the hub’s 66,000 square feet to bake, pickle and fill orders from across the country and, eventually, overseas, said Niki Russ Federman, one of the owners. Ms. Federman said the space, like those of the other future tenants of the food hub, would include a retail shop.

The 300-acre Navy Yard is surrounded by guarded gates, and the absence of a place to buy lunch inside is one of the most common complaints of the people who work there. Among the planned additions is the first Wegman’s grocery store in New York City.

“The more good people and delicious food there is in one place, the more of a draw it’s going to be,” said Ms. Federman, who added that she had suggested some prospective tenants to the landlord, the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation.

In turn, Ms. Federman said she had received help finding new employees through the employment center that the development corporation runs. “We’ve already hired a number of people through the Navy Yard, and we’re not even there yet,” she said.

The city is contributing about $80 million of the $185 million in planned upgrades to the food-hub building, and plans to spend an additional $30 million rebuilding a collapsed pier near the Greenhouse that will be the base for a citywide ferry service championed by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The de Blasio administration has taken up the city’s commitment to revitalizing the Navy Yard, which was a keystone of former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s economic-development strategy.

“We are actually making things here,” said Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor for housing and economic development.

As Ms. Glen looked out from a high floor in one of the yard’s buildings at working dry docks and structures in various states of repair, she rattled off a list of products being made or designed at the site, not all of them edible. “These are good jobs that people thought were lost to New York forever,” she said.

Among the more ambitious tenants is Edward Jacobs, whose company, FXE Industries, is building a prototype of motorcycles it hopes to mass-produce in the Navy Yard. The group has just three employees now, but would need many more to produce the “thousands of bikes” Mr. Jacobs dreams of.

“We believe that there is value in keeping everything close by,” he said, adding that being in Brooklyn exposes entrepreneurs to many different perspectives.

Until more of the buildings are renovated or new ones are built, the Navy Yard is fully occupied. But some prominent companies are considering taking space there some day, including Brooklyn Brewery.

Steve Hindy, the chairman and co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery, said the company’s formerly scruffy neighborhood in Williamsburg had filled with hotels and clubs that were able to afford higher rents than a manufacturer could.

“The Navy Yard is an incredible success story and an example to be copied around the country,” Mr. Hindy said. “It offers the kind of long-term home that any industrial business would embrace.”

He said he would not be attending the debate but would be delivering some Brooklyn beer to a neighboring building where the news media will be stationed.

“Thirty years ago, when we started, the idea of a presidential debate in Brooklyn would have been pretty far beyond anyone’s imagination,” Mr. Hindy said. “It’s a real demonstration of Brooklyn’s arrival.”