More than 260 auto repair shops, junkyards and construction companies will have to move from the blighted Willets Point neighborhood now that the City Council has given final approval to the $3 billion plan to turn the 62-acre industrial space into a mega retail, hotel, and housing complex. But not everyone is being forced out.
One business, the family-owned Indian food wholesaler House of Spices, was excluded from the Willets Point redevelopment plan and will be allowed to stay. But the question is for how long? The company’s vice president Amrapali Soni says that’s up to the city to decide.
“We will remain in New York City as long as New York City helps us and wants us to stay here,” says Soni. “For now we plan on staying at Willets Point as long as possible, until we outgrow our space or until there is a reason to move.”
House of Spices, which specializes in a variety of Indian foods and operates eight other facilities in the country, has headquartered its operations in New York since 1989, employing more than 100 people in Queens.
It initially received tax benefits from the city’s Industrial Development Agency (IDA) when it first came to Willets Point and continued to receive the city’s support. But Soni says that in spite of its seemingly strong ties with the city, its future of doing and expanding business in New York is still uncertain.
“It’s questionable for us in terms of where we plan on being in 10 years,” says Soni. “After this development [comes] to fruition, there are going to be parts of Willets Point [where] commercial businesses will be misfits in the area.”
According to the city’s Economic Development Corporation, phase one of the project includes the construction of 2,500 housing units, over six acres of public space, a public school, parking lots, and a hotel. When the project was first introduced in 2008 and the city tried to use eminent domain to displace businesses, the Soni family searched for spaces within the five boroughs and in New Jersey to relocate because the redevelopment meant limited space for expansion.
“The Indian grocery business is changing,” says Soni. “A lot of our business is in Queens [but] now the majority of that has moved to New Jersey.”
Rob MacKay, director of public relations, marketing and tourism for the Queens Economic Development Corporation, says that for a company like House of Spices, New Jersey has its advantages. The cost to operate a factory is cheaper in New Jersey than in Queens and a commercial and residential Indian community is thriving there.
MacKay admits that New York City’s heavy tax burden diminishes its competitive edge with other states. But he says that Queens also has a burgeoning Indian community and other viable industrial spaces like the College Point Corporate Park in Flushing could satisfy the growing business demands for House of Spices.
“I would hope that people at the state level and citywide level would make sure that they get whatever tax breaks or whatever’s necessary to keep them in the borough,” says MacKay. “It’s jobs in Queens. It’s that simple.”
For now, Willets Point is still an ideal spot for House of Spices. The location provides easy access to highways, bridges, and tunnels for moving its product. Soni, however, says the company will keep its options open. She is still concerned that the city can use the threat of eminent domain again once the redevelopment is in motion.
“Nothing is ever off the table,” says Soni. “We are open to exploring all opportunities at all times.”