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Sanders’ development focus brings $$ to council district

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From boosting Laurelton’s commercial strip and keeping it safe to bringing in funds for other projects, Councilman James Sanders Jr.’s thoughts seem to revolve around money.

But for Sanders (D-Laurelton), who is chairman of the Council’s Economic Development Committee and representative for the third wealthiest district in Queens, this should come as no surprise.

Earlier this year, Sanders had a community fund established for contributions from the Pathmark Supermarket in Laurelton. But in an interview with the TimesLedger last week, the councilman pledged not to accept campaign contributions from community groups that get a piece of that money.

In 1995 Pathmark agreed to contribute $400,000 over the next 20 years into a community fund to help local businesses and organizations in exchange for winning the approval of the City Council to open a supermarket in Laurelton.

But former Councilwoman Juanita Watkins, who brokered the deal, never collected the money. When Sanders took office in 2002 he pushed to get the money into the community, he said. Sanders put the area’s two local development corporations in charge of divvying up the money, but only $10,000 has been distributed so far, he said.

“It’s been hell getting that money moving and getting all the community groups moving in the same direction,” he said. “I’m not making the decision on who gets and who doesn’t. I’m making sure the objectivity of the LDCs is intact.”

While trying to shield himself from that decision-making process, Sanders decided that taking money from the groups that benefit could present a conflict of interest.

One of Sanders’ latest priorities is starting a security patrol on Merrick Boulevard with money he secured from the mayor’s office, he told the TimesLedger in an interview. He is also working to find ways to bring dollars into the district to control mosquitoes and expand library programs, he said.

Sanders is up for re-election this year due to the redistricting process, which shifted boundaries to reflect changes in the district’s population from the 2000 Census. Democratic district leader James Blake filed a petition to face the councilman in the primary, but he was removed by the Board of Elections. Republican Everly Brown was still on the ballot Tuesday, although Sanders and the Queens County Democratic Party were challenging his paperwork.

With at least $5,000 from the mayor’s office in the bank, Sanders has teamed up with the Local Development Corporation of Laurelton, Rosedale and Springfield Gardens to start a security patrol on Merrick Boulevard, Laurelton’s main commercial strip, he said. The plan is still in the planning stage, but Sanders hopes to get the patrol, made up of off-duty and retired law enforcement officers, on the street within a month, he said.

The area around the retail blocks has been prone to violent outbursts, said Bess DeBetham, president of the LDC. Earlier this year two groups of junior high school students began fighting, trapping a handful of residents in the post office, and in June there was another street fight near 220th Street, she said.

“I’m living in Laurelton 31 years and this recent violence that has been shown — I don’t recall this ever happening before,” DeBetham said. “We believe that with additional security cooler heads will prevail.”

Sanders is worried that if the outbursts continue, retailers, such as the Duane Reade at Francis Lewis and Merrick boulevards or the clothing shops in the Pathmark shopping plaza, might leave, and new stores will avoid the area, he said.

“We may not have many stores but we need not lose the stores we do have,” he said. “I wish I had the money to do the whole community.”

Sanders is also pushing to draw more quality retailers to the strip, he said.

“Our shopping center does not reflect the wealth of our community,” Sanders said. “The out-of-town merchants are interested in getting the money out. Our community, by and large, has not opened businesses.”

Other goals include purchasing carbon dioxide mosquito traps to limit the carriers of the West Nile virus and creating a youth center in Laurelton, Sanders said.

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

Posted 7:24 pm, October 10, 2011
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