New York, NY The New York Real Estate Journal (NYREJ) sat down with Beth Zafonte, this month’s executive of the month, for a question and answer session. Zafonte is the director of economic development services at Akerman LLP.
NYREJ: Can you share a little about your firm?
Zafonte: I am a director of economic development and incentives services within Akerman’s national Real Estate Practice Group, and a member of its Qualified Opportunity Zones Practice. Akerman is ranked among the top 100 law firms in the U.S. and provides a national platform with 25 offices and more than 700 attorneys. Our firm has also been consistently ranked as one of the nation’s most innovative law firms by the Financial Times each year since 2015. The forward-thinking and collaborative environment at Akerman provides opportunities to work across practice groups and offices on a variety of firm initiatives, something I greatly enjoy. We also have high national rankings for our social impact program that focuses on philanthropy and community engagement, probono, equality and inclusion, a Women’s Initiative Network, and sustainability. I currently chair our Akerman Philanthropic Initiative, one component of our social impact program, dedicated to education and youth development. This will be my 11th year at Akerman. Prior to Akerman, I was with Stadtmauer Bailkin for 25 years.
NYREJ: What are the key influences in your work today?
Zafonte: My expertise is in economic development incentives, which means that my work is strongly influenced by the current administrations’ position on the need for incentives at the federal, state and city levels. For example, the city’s Relocation Employment Assistance Program, known as REAP, is set to expire this year at the end of June. REAP is intended to induce companies to areas outside of Manhattan’s core. There is also a Lower Manhattan REAP intended to induce relocations to Lower Manhattan, which will sunset on this same timeline. Both REAP programs provide tax credits of up to $3,000 annually for 12 years for each qualified employee. This program, along with other as-of-right incentives remain critical drivers in the relocation decision making process. While REAP and similar incentive programs such as Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program (ICAP) and Commercial Expansion Program (CEP) have been renewed in the past, there is no guarantee that they will be renewed again. The residual effects of the Amazon deal in Long Island City going bust and the changing political and economic landscape have created uncertainty. I am working with clients to vest benefits before the programs sunset. I remain optimistic that the necessity of these incentives programs in the face of the high cost of construction and operating costs in NYC will continue to be recognized.
In addition, similar to the way the EB-5 Foreign Investment for Visa program influenced my work when the program was at the height of its use, the Opportunity Zones (OZ) Program provides expansive opportunity for my clients and provides a new tool in the box. Federal agencies, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Economic Development Administration and Small Business Administration have all stepped up in providing the necessary supplemental financial and programmatic support to induce and ensure the success of investment in both real estate projects and businesses located in the designated OZ communities. For example, businesses already in OZs will receive priority review and priority points on many applications for assistance. Federal funds are being awarded for OZ projects and I expect we will see a dramatic uptick in federal support in 2020. Understanding how to navigate the maze of the opportunities and ultimately identify the right funding programs that will enhance a project’s feasibility and/or reduce operating costs is a bit like mastering Sudoku or the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle. Every time there is new guidance, rules or new legislation on economic development incentives programs, it influences my work and the value I can bring to my clients.
NYREJ: What led you to your current profession?
Zafonte: It found me. A decision to accept a job offer at a boutique real estate law firm and move from Denver to NYC in my mid-20s was one of the best I made in my life. Despite the steep learning curve back then as it related to navigating life in NYC, the real estate industry and economic development, I was hooked. Now, I can’t imagine doing anything else. Having my fingerprints on transformational economic development projects in Downtown Brooklyn, Times Sq. and Lower Manhattan, among other locations, is a source of pride for me. Working with clients in the new economy is keeping things lively for me now.
NYREJ: Is your work easily recognizable? Why or why not?
Zafonte: It may depend on one’s definition of “easily recognizable.” I am defining “recognition” as a visible positive contribution toward a project that advances economic development activity in a particular place. In that context, my work is recognizable. My clients are able to relocate and/or expand their business operations, physically upgrade facilities and create employment opportunities with the incentives that I am able to secure for them. In the case of development projects, where incentives are typically needed to enhance project feasibility, yes, the work or impact is obvious. Securing significant state grant funding and the full range of benefits from the local Industrial Development Agency in Yonkers for a premiere major development company is a good example. Another example would be the Excelsior Job Tax Credit awards in excess of $8.5 million that I secured for numerous smaller tech startups over the last two years. This will make a recognizable difference to the growth of this industry and the economy in NYC.
NYREJ: What do you like most about your job?
Zafonte: I feel particularly fortunate to have the close connection with my colleagues at Akerman. I have known many of the people that I work with for more than 20 years. We have been through milestone family celebrations as well as the more difficult times together. These underlying bonds contribute to the foundation upon which I have been able to build my career. These relationships create a positive working environment on a daily basis. This also translates into a positive experience for clients. We have a great team–we have each other’s backs. I also thrive on the variety of clients and industries that I represent. There are no cookie cutter deals and I enjoy the challenge of structuring the optimum incentive package and executing on securing that for my clients.
NYREJ: Do you ever truly unplug from work?
Zafonte: Not really? I have discovered that truly unplugging from work only seems to occur when I vacation internationally, and that my ability to do so increases exponentially as the time difference from New York expands. It is a challenge for me to unplug on a daily basis but I understand the health and wellness implications of not doing so. I would say it’s a work in progress.
NYREJ: What is inspiring you now?
Zafonte: Professionally, I am inspired by (i) the young women who are choosing to pursue a career in commercial real estate, (ii) the members of the industry organizations that dedicate personal time to supporting those efforts through scholarship, mentoring and education and (iii) the companies that choose to sponsor these efforts. As the current president of WX – New York Women Executives in Real Estate, I am inspired daily by the commitment of our members to the advancement of women in real estate. The high standards of professionalism and integrity they thoughtfully display while serving as role models for the future women leaders in commercial real estate is commendable and inspirational. Personally, I am inspired by the leadership, social workers and Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers at CASA-NYC as well as the National CASA Association. Family Court judges assign a CASA to assist in complex cases involving children and youth in foster care where extra individualized attention and advocacy is required. I serve as a CASA volunteer and have witnessed the dedication of the social workers and other volunteers first-hand. I also had the opportunity to attend CASA’s national conference last year. I was profoundly moved by the people I met there and inspired to continue my work with CASA as well as spread the word of this outstanding organization.
NYREJ: Is there anything else we should have asked or that you would like to add?
Zafonte: My career has been greatly enriched by the various industry organizations that I have been involved with over the years. The depth of friendships that I have made, the education provided and the leadership opportunities I have enjoyed through CoreNet Global, CREW Network and WX – New York Women Executives in Real Estate are gifts. Within these networks, we very often call upon each other for our areas of expertise and to activate the resources of our collective broader networks. I never miss an opportunity to encourage younger real estate professionals to actively engage in our industry groups. The involvement is deeply rewarding, both professionally and personally.