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Biz leaders mixed on economy

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"Although many of us are facing challenges, we also have numerous opportunities that can benefit us individually, as well as the Queens business community as a whole," said Sovereign Bank CEO Joseph Campanelli in a letter to Queens business leaders.The Queens Chamber of Commerce announced the findings at a conference last week in Flushing The survey, which was mailed to Sovereign Bank customers and to chamber of commerce business owners found that 52 percent of consumers said overall quality of life was the borough's top strength, while 50 percent said the low crime rate was the crown jewel.But consumers did have their gripes. Some 64 percent cited the cost of gasoline as the top challenge the borough faces and 59 percent said the cost of living was the biggest problem.Half of consumers surveyed said their personal economic situation was the same as a year ago, while 17 percent said they were slightly better off. Some 19 percent said they were slightly worse off than last year, a small increase from the 15 percent recorded for the 2007 survey.The bank's survey of Queens businesses showed 45 percent expected slow growth in the economy this year, compared with 61 percent for 2007. But 26 percent expected slight weakness, up from 12 percent last year, and 15 percent expected severe weakness, up from 2 percent last year.Some 45 percent of the businesses surveyed also expected slow growth in the Queens economy, compared with 56 percent in 2007. Those expecting slight weakness surged to 27 percent from 9 percent in 2007, and 8 percent expected severe weakness, compared with none in 2007.But there was no increase from 2007 in the number of businesses expecting to reduce their employment plans, which remained at 7 percent. More businesses expected no significant change in their plans, up to 43 percent from 34 percent in 2007. Some 43 percent of businesses expected a slight increase in employment, compared with 52 percent in 2007.Capital expenditure plans remained almost the same from 2007-08 among businesses surveyed. Some 45 percent anticipated a slight increase in expenditures, the same as 2007, while 34 percent anticipated no significant change, down from 36 percent in 2007.Several speakers at the event also projected a generally positive outcome for the borough. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said the current sub-prime mortgage crisis could be a lot worse in Queens."The problem is not as severe here as it is in other parts of the state," he said, noting his office has been asking lenders to reach out to borrowers before foreclosing on their homes.Albert Pennisi, president of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, said the 14 major construction projects under way in Queens will continue to bring millions of dollars in revenue and thousands of construction jobs to the borough."Forty-six million tourists came to New York City last year. We want to get a part of that," he said. Economist Maria Fiorini Ramirez said the dollar's weakness against foreign currency means good things for the export market and for attracting foreign business. She had some advice for the planners behind the Willets Point Redevelopment project."You're building a convention center here?" she said. "Market the hell out of it, because it's so cheap to come here."But some Queens business leaders had a gloomier outlook."In this climate, things are not quite what they appear to be, and it depends on where you sit," said Joseph Mattone Sr., chairman of the development firm Mattone Group. "There is a resistance to recognize that pricing on property should be lowered."He said he did not foresee any softening in construction costs, which would make large-scale real estate deals difficult."Optimism is great, if there is a foundation for it," he said.Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jwalsh@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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