Fostering the Manufacturing Sector
Background and Key Considerations

The manufacturing community in Gowanus is flourishing; new types of firms are moving in and setting up shop alongside more traditional industrial businesses that have been part of the community for decades.

This reflects larger trends in Brooklyn where after decades of decline, manufacturing is now showing signs of resurgence. It also reflects the national conversation about the changing nature of U.S. manufacturing, which is becoming more based in technology and innovation. Friends of Brooklyn Community Board 6 has recently sponsored a Brownfield Opportunity Area (BOA) Nomination Study to develop an economic development strategy to encourage new investment in Gowanus’s businesses and buildings while preserving the area’s existing industrial and cultural uses. This section of the planning framework reflects many of the findings and recommendations from that study.

The Gowanus area is a vibrant hub of industrial, manufacturing, and commercial business activity, with thousands of jobs found within hundreds of businesses throughout the area1)Data analyzed for the Gowanus Canal BOA Nomination Study showed that in 2012 there were 420 firms with 3,500 employees in that project’s study area, which is comprised of the most densely commercial/industrial parts of Gowanus. Local manufacturers produce a broad variety of goods – such as metal grilles, chemicals, coffee, cell phones, knitwear, and neon light tubes, to name but a few – in facilities that employ as few as one person to as many as 50.  Also, more traditional, heavier industrial users have been in the area for decades. There is a notable cluster of building materials and trades, with related businesses ranging from lumber yards and contractors to retailers such as Build it Green, which resells materials salvaged from deconstructed buildings.  Business advocates and other local stakeholders have noted that Gowanus is emerging as a natural home for “green building” enterprises that operate at the cross-section of the environmental and construction business sectors. And of course, the area has long been home to group and individual artists’ studios. In recent years there has also emerged a growing and visible presence of graphic design, printing, and film companies, as well as numerous designers and producers of textile products, jewelry, and accessories.

“Architectural Grille Photo credit: Pratt Center for Community Development”

“Architectural Grille Photo credit: Pratt Center for Community Development”

 

A Gowanus location offers many benefits to businesses: highway access, proximity to markets, access to Manhattan, and a strong business-to-business sense of community. A majority of firms anticipate growth and want to stay in Gowanus,2)Survey of business owners from the Gowanus Canal BOA Nomination Study, April 2014 and throughout the planning process we heard that a wide spectrum of local stakeholders (i.e., not just business owners and advocates) wants to preserve the existing economic base and see the business community grow.

Achieving the vision of a strengthened and expanded local economy entails facing some fundamental challenges. The vast majority of businesses in Gowanus are tenants, who are vulnerable to the pressures of an increasingly hot local real estate market. Relatedly, non-industrial use businesses that can thrive despite higher land prices – like hotels and entertainment/recreational venues – are increasingly opening in Gowanus. Not only do they compete for land against job-creating industrial and related businesses, but if the status quo continues, they threaten to permanently alter the industrial and creative character of the neighborhood’s economic base.

In addition to requiring a stable real estate climate in order to thrive, local businesses are hindered by outdated and inferior physical and technological infrastructure. These deficiencies will need solutions in order for local businesses to be strengthened and expanded. Inadequate loading zones, a sub-par sewage system, and a faulty to non-existent telecommunications infrastructure all undermine local businesses’ ability to continue to thrive into the future.

Given all the businesses that call Gowanus home (and that are currently moving to the area) there is considerable potential to create much-needed employment opportunity for local residents. This has historically been the case, but as of late the proportion of local residents who also work in the neighborhood has declined.Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of the local workforce drawn from Gowanus Census tracts declined from 7% to 1% (U.S. Census). Unemployment levels are high in local NYCHA developments, whose residents make up a quarter of local renters.Weathering the Storm: Rebuilding a More Resilient New York City Housing Authority Post-Sandy, 2014.

Upcoming environmental infrastructure, resiliency and remediation projects described in the previous chapter – as well as potential new and expanded local businesses – will create new jobs that could benefit local residents in need of employment. However, in order to connect underemployed residents to these kinds of jobs, the problem of “skills mismatch” will need to be addressed; local residents will require appropriate training to ensure they have the skill sets to meet the needs of the new employment opportunities. In addition, there need to be solid relationships between businesses, residents and community groups to ensure that residents are recruited for local jobs.

 

 

References   [ + ]

1. Data analyzed for the Gowanus Canal BOA Nomination Study showed that in 2012 there were 420 firms with 3,500 employees in that project’s study area, which is comprised of the most densely commercial/industrial parts of Gowanus.
2. Survey of business owners from the Gowanus Canal BOA Nomination Study, April 2014