Walking through the newly built Empire Outlets mall next to the Staten Island ferry terminal Tuesday, Amoy Barnes stared at an empty storefront and its sweeping views of Manhattan with dismay.
Barnes, 33, announced in September she’s running for City Council as a Democrat in 2021, and sees the power of that job very simply: it’s about budgeting and negotiating land use.
In that light, she sees Empire Outlets — approved with the blessings of current, term-limited Councilmember Debi Rose — as a giant missed opportunity for the long-struggling North Shore of Staten Island.
“It’s imperative that this economic renaissance is shared by the community as well,” Barnes told THE CITY.
She scoffed at the idea that merely building an esplanade to go alongside a waterfront project is enough and said she would demand wider commitments to the public tied to Council development approvals.
Someone could have insisted Empire Outlets offer unleased space to local businesses, she said by way of example.
“She did everything she could,” Barnes said of Rose, whose 2009 election — with the controversial support of the Working Families Party — represented a sea change in Staten Island politics as she became the first black person elected to higher office on the island.
“Our current Council member is a trailblazer,” said Barnes. “To be the first requires courage and that courage has paved the way for someone like myself.”
All the same, Barnes contends that compared to waterfront development in Brooklyn and Queens, Staten Island has gotten a raw deal.
Barnes said she plans to campaign on bringing more “equity” to the North Shore, focusing on fixing its challenged infrastructure, addressing job development, improving schools, and providing the district with more transportation alternatives, such as a network of fast ferries.
She’s looking to real estate projects on the horizon as an ongoing opportunity to win neighborhood dividends.
An entire floor of the outlet mall has yet to open and acres of public space and amenities promised to Staten Islanders in the Stapleton Special Waterfront District has yet to be built.
And that’s not including the half-mile stretch of the Bay Street corridor, which the Council recently rezoned to encourage new housing and attract thousands of new residents. In return for Rose’s support, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to rebuild the beloved Cromwell Recreation Center and funded a new school in Stapleton.
Cesar Claro, president of the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation, said he’s optimistic the boom will continue.
“It’s a challenge to get things going out here for many, many reasons,” Claro said. “But now, it’s all the stuff you see happening in other parts of the city where there has been both public and private investment, so it’s everything we expected it to be.”
Islander in the Room
Barnes, who lives in West Brighton, already has fundraisers scheduled this month on Staten Island and in Manhattan and has signed up to receive public matching funds from the city.
She’s still working out a campaign slogan as she plunges into an already crowded race that includes Selina Grey, a political strategist who has managed campaigns for several North Shore Democrats, including Rose’s 2017 reelection bid.
Then there’s Phillipe Marius, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who campaigned for the seat in 2017 but failed to get enough signatures to make it onto the ballot. Victor Kelvin Richards, a Legal Aid attorney, has also signed up to run.
A spokesperson for Rose said it’s “too early” to say if she’ll endorse in the race for her seat.
Barnes is leaning on her 11 years of experience in city and state government. She’s led constituent services for State Sen. Diane Savino (D-North Shore/Brooklyn), worked as a community outreach coordinator in the borough with the city Parks Department and spent two years as borough director for the mayor’s office, responsible for community engagement and fiendling concerns on local initiatives, like the Bay Street rezoning.
She currently works for the city Department of Education, running a center that promotes college access and professional development for students with delayed learning skills and disabilities.
She says her work for the mayor’s office has already shown she can deliver for Staten Island and its residents on the issues that matter to them.
“My role was to know the politics and to know the people,” said Barnes, who immigrated from Jamaica to Tompkinsville with her mom when she was 4 years old. “It taught me about the issues and how to solve the issues.”
Heather Butts, co-founder and executive director of HEALTH for Youths, said she met Barnes six years ago when she worked at the Parks Department. She credited Barnes with helping her navigate bureaucracy.
“Amoy is not a flashy person. She’s not the person who’s going to be jazz hands running around talking about all the great things she’s done, but she’s done them quietly and with dignity” said Butts.
Barnes pointed to her role in attempting to break the years-long stalemate over the location of a $100 million indoor pool promised by de Blasio. Staten Island Borough President Jimmy Oddo initially wanted it in the Sunnyside neighborhood, while Rose wanted de Blasio to build it at the Goodhue Center in the North Shore.
Barnes said she had to explain to de Blasio’s team that the Sunnyside location wasn’t accessible via public transportation, which would make it especially difficult for North Shore residents — less likely than others to own cars — to get there.
“No offense to the administration, but there really weren’t too many Staten Islanders in the room,” she said.
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