Queens, N.Y.

As the fight against eminent domain abuse grows, cities and developers are constantly forced to come up with new, roundabout ways to make their claims of “blight” legitimate. “Blight,” of course, carries with it the power of eminent domain, which the government will invariably use to force out home and business owners.

One growing trend is known as “purposeful neglect,” in which cities refuse to perform basic services-filling potholes, sewer upkeep and even telephone line maintenance–allowing the area to fall into disrepair so it can then be unfairly labeled as “blighted.”

This strategy of government neglect is in full force in Willets Point, a bustling area in Queens, N.Y. Some 225 businesses, which fill the city coffers with millions in tax revenue,[1] are forced to shovel snow themselves, go without phone service when it rains, and generally operate without anything resembling a police force to patrol the neighborhood.[2]

The City no doubt turns this blind eye in the hopes that one out of several competing development companies will turn the 48 acres near Shea Stadium into “luxury” town homes, retail shops, a hotel and a conference center.[3]

Though the area, known as the “Iron Triangle,” is mostly comprised of auto-related businesses, many others flourish there as well. Fodera Foods has been in business since Anthony Fodera’s grandfather began the company as a grocery in the 1930s, after immigrating to the United States from Sicily.[4] The company distributes baking goods all over the City, such as flour, jam, shortening and sugar.[5] They moved to Willetts Point in the early 1970s when they needed more space to handle their ever-growing demand.

Fodera’s grandfather often inspired his children and grandchildren with stories of his excitement and expectations of moving to America and partaking in this grand land of opportunity. He moved to this country with nothing but $20 in his pocket and the dream that he would live in a free society. But now, Anthony Fodera says, “His dream has become my nightmare.”[6]

Fodera, who serves as President, says that despite his $1 million inventory and $160,000 per year in property taxes,[7] the City refuses to carry out the normal upkeep that any city needs to keep it habitable, safe and looking fresh. He chalks it up to purposeful neglect- an excuse to label the area as “blighted”.

“This is a vibrant area in the first place, even though the City refuses to do improvements,” Fodera said in a phone interview from his Willets Point office. “Just because we aren’t Gucci or Armani, that apparently means we aren’t good enough to have businesses here. It’s nothing but greedy politicians and developers wanting to leave some sort of ‘legacy.’”

But Fodera and his company, with more than 55 employees, including multiple family members, have withstood more than their share of greediness. The first attempt to run the businesses out came when Fodera Foods first moved into the area. The New York Mets attempted to build a stadium there, but eventually settled on a different, nearby location. Next came Donald Trump’s football team, the Jersey Generals, which tried to set up a playing field there. Later, the New York Jets saw the area as a prime location for their professional franchise, but luckily for Fodera and his business neighbors, that attempt also fell through. The latest threat came when the City of New York sought to host the ­­2012 Olympic games, but to the relief of Fodera, it lost that bid to London.[8]

Fodera can see why the area is so attractive to potential businesses—just like many other small business owners around the country on land desired by politically connected developers. “I picked this location for my company because it’s accessible by the major thoroughfares, it has a good labor force, and it has a close proximity to LaGuardia and Kennedy Airports.”

Those reasons are precisely why this passionate, family business owner is refusing to give in to the greedy demands of the City, that he hand his land over to higher-revenue businesses. “I do not want to leave,” Fodera said. “And I know I may not even win this fight, but I am completely committed to fighting everything they want to do.”

The fight to keep his business is so deeply ingrained that it’s wound up costing him more money and stress than he could have ever possibly imagined. In order to keep his business, Fodera has organized with his neighbors to form the Willets Point Businessmen’s Group, which is focused on saving the area’s businesses and some 1,800 jobs that are in the area. Additionally, the Group has hired a lobbyist, Queens native Peter Vallone, to begin communications with the City Council. And a public relations firm is assisting them in getting their simple message out—they aren’t going anywhere.

Fodera says that since that the City won’t put his hard-earned tax dollars to good use to fix pot holes, sewage problems, sanitary and other infrastructure issues (which are precisely what tax dollars are intended to do), the current Willets Point businesses don’t want to invest in improvements themselves—if they’re taken by eminent domain, there’s the real possibility they’d never get their money back.

In previous years, Fodera has wanted desperately to invest in his own business so that he could stay competitive with other food distribution companies, but he and his family chose not to pay for the extensive list of improvements, for fear that all would be lost.[9] Instead, his energy and funds are being directed towards saving the plot of land on which the business sits.

To add insult to injury, Fodera has had to face a multitude of other issues in the fight to keep the property he already rightfully owns. For instance, his property value alone has decreased considerably due to the fact that the City refuses to use the locally generated tax dollars to perform normal neighborhood maintenance.

At this point, the only information the City is willing to divulge is that it has narrowed down the number of development firms to seven, one of which will be chosen sometime in November.[10] Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani are firmly behind the so-called “redevelopment project,” along with the local Economic Development Corporation which will oversee the proposal[11]—as long as it is not stopped by the deep commitment of Fodera and his neighbors.

“I say ‘NO’ to being forced out by City Hall to enrich wealthy developers,” Fodera wrote in a letter to the Castle Coalition. “Eminent domain is a harsh remedy to a problem we didn’t cause. It’s a forced sale. This represents an unholy alliance between local governments and developers. In my view, this is a modern day version of the ‘robber barons.’”

The Castle Coalition will continue to assist Fodera and his neighbors—and anyone around the country&mdash
;in their grassroots battle against eminent domain for private gain.

To contact the Willetts Point Businessmen’s Group, please contact Scott Gastel at Sheinkopf Communications, the Public Affairs firm that is helping Fodera and his neighbors. (www.sheinkopf.com)

[1] Tom Angotti, “Willetts Point: A defense,” Gotham Gazette, April 10, 2006.

[2] Gus Garcia Roberts, “The battle over the Iron Triangle,” Gotham Gazette, December 9, 2005.

[3] Tommy Fernandez, “Putting New York’s Olympic bid first,” New York Games, January 16, 2006.

[4] Jarrett Murphy, “Melting the Iron Triangle,” The Village Voice, June 12, 2006.

[5] www.foderafoods.com/Products.

[6] Anthony Fodera, Telephone interview conducted by Melanie Harmon (Institute for Justice), September 15, 2006.

[7] Anthony Fodera, Telephone interview conducted by Melanie Harmon (Institute for Justice), September 8, 2006.

[8] Gus Garcia Roberts, “The battle over the Iron Triangle,” Gotham Gazette, December 9, 2005.

[9] Anthony Fodera, Letter to Melanie Harmon (Institute for Justice), September 8, 2006.

[10] David Lombino,“Finalists picked to bid for Willetts Point makeover,” The New York Sun, March 3, 2006.

[11] Jarrett Murphy, “Melting the Iron Triangle,” The Village Voice, June 12, 2006.