By Danny Schrafel
When listening to union leadership speak about Jerry and David Wolkoff’s proposed $4-billion Heartland Town Square “mini-city” concept, there’s wary enthusiasm.
Leadership touts the 20,000 permanent jobs that are expected, the $20 million in projected sales tax revenues for the county, and the $50 million in property taxes that would benefit Islip Town.
But one caveat looms large – they want union labor to build it.
Developer Jerry Wolkoff and his son, David, are proposing to build 9,000 residential units, 1 million square feet of retail space, 3,239,500 square feet of office space and 215,500 square feet of civic space on 452 acres of the Pilgrim State Hospital in nearby Brentwood, which the Wolkoffs bought in 2002 after the property was decommissioned by the state.
A special hearing was held April 16 by the Town of Islip planning board for the proposal, which borders Huntington in Dix Hills and Commack.
Union officials throughout Long Island want Wolkoff to sign a project labor agreement with unions. It’s a push the Heartland developers have not acquiesced to, but the Wolkoffs pledged to continue working closely with labor unions.
“We’ve always had an open-door policy with the unions,” David Wolkoff said. “We’re definitely not anti-union. We’re constantly talking to the unions, and we believe union labor will probably help building the project.”
Richard O’Kane, president of the Nassau-Suffolk Building Trades, which he said represented 59,000 members, said he and members are “sick and tired” of projects in Islip being built with labor from other states.
He argues local laborers should be hired first should Heartland be green-lighted.
“We live here. We put your fires out. We train your kids to play ball. We do the volunteer work,” O’Kane told the Islip Planning Board at a hearing on the proposal April 16. “We would love to support this project, but we want to work on it. Why do we have to bring people in from other towns and other states? It’s not right.”
Out-of-state labor is out of the question, David Wolkoff said.
“That’s not how we build, and our history proves [it],” he said.
David Wolkoff said a local-hiring approach will be taken for building jobs, starting with workers in the Brentwood community and slowly spreading outward to Islip, then the entire county.
“We’ve been building here for 40 years,” he said. “We’ve never used anybody from out of state. Most of it has been locals.”
James Pena, an organizer for the IBEW Local 25 Long Island Electricians, said his organization, which represents hundreds of electricians and carpenters, is more optimistic.
The project is “immense” and “very much needed” despite the building trade concerns, and he said they trust the Wolkoffs to do the right thing.
“I feel the integrity of the Wolkoffs’ partnership will come through. We’ve done work together before. Let’s give ourselves all the opportunities to do some more work together again,” he said. “Let’s build it. More importantly, let’s build it union… let’s transform Long Island together.”
If the Wolkoffs were breaking ground in Huntington township, town law requires any general contractor, contractor or sub-contractor for any project, public or private, building a structure 100,000 square feet or larger, to have state-approved apprenticeship agreements appropriate for the scope of work to be performed. In short, that means using union shops.
There is, however, a catch.
“It is for each individual building of over 100,000 square feet, not an entire development. So if the project were in Huntington and included, say, an office building of greater than 100,000 square feet, the answer is yes, [the apprenticeship rules apply,]” said town spokesman A.J. Carter. “But if he built a residential development with 50 2,000-square foot homes as part of the same project, the answer is no for those homes.”