The king of DASNYland: A Q&A with DASNY President Gerrard Bushell

Gerrard Bushell, the president and chief executive officer of DASNY, is responsible for the management of a public developer that is both one of the largest in the state and also little known. A veteran of the financial sector, Bushell sat down with City & State to discuss the DASNY's efforts to combat the effects of climate change in New York and how the agency is handling the rapid expansion of the SUNY and CUNY systems.

C&S: What does DASNY do? What role does it have in state government?

GB: Everyone who knows something about DASNY has really focused on the historic underpinning of the message of the New York State Dormitory Authority, so we build and finance dormitories – well, we do a lot more than that. It’s part of what we do, but given that we are one of the largest public builders in the state and certainly in the nation and we continue to build for two of our largest clients, which would be the City University of New York and the State University of New York. At the end of the day, a state is only as good as the infrastructure that has put in place, and obviously you need to have roads, tunnels, bridges, because you need to move and transport people, goods, services. New York is at the top of that, and that’s one of the reasons we were leaders coming out of early American history, just by nature of the Hudson River and Erie County. We at DASNY, on behalf of the state, working with the (state) Department of Education, working with the (state) Department of Health, through our financing capability and our construction capability, ensure that New York state is a magnet of opportunity and inclusivity in respect to how we care for people across this state and having some of the finest health care institutions in the world and having some of the finest educational institutions in the world.

C&S: In your annual report, Cuomo mentioned he has called on DASNY to help New York recover from storms and for storm preparation. Through the New York Works initiative, how has DASNY’s role changed and expanded in the last several years to help the state deal with climate change?

GB: When (Superstorm) Sandy came about, I think one of the key things that was very important was to get into the communities as quickly as possible and to understand, “How can we build a resilient infrastructure to withstand the next series of storms, but also repair the damages?”

The governor has called on DASNY to do that. We work very closely with the governor’s office on a multiplicity of projects. These projects are different in scope from many of the projects we started with historically. We’re known for big infrastructure, so when you think of universities and health care institutions, you probably tend to think about campuses in either case and we build that and we’re known for that. Many of our newer projects, particularly as it relates to storm recovery are smaller: they’re homes, they’re generators. So, it’s really propping up the infrastructure and repairing the infrastructure that was damaged.

C&S: Both CUNY and SUNY have greatly expanded in recent years as the state invests more into the two university systems. What are some of the challenges DASNY has faced keeping up with rapidly growing systems?

GB: New York state represents best in class unequivocally – we have many institutions that come to us and they’re looking for cheap financing because we can provide the lowest cost of capital based on issuing as a tax-exempt authority on their behalf, so we can do that. We can get it to the market quickly and more importantly, investors know the credit of the state. The challenge for people today is, “Where do you put your money?” New York state is still a quality credit, it is a very important credit. DASNY is one of the stellar credits alongside New York state, so our debt is purchased and it’s generally oversubscribed. Our higher education and health care institutions are enabled to meet their goals and objectives to plan for changes in the future and confront uncertainty. We don’t know all the problems and challenges, but we do know that higher education, there’s a higher cost to it, there’s a higher multiple, health care costs have grown and each of these industries have to rethink how they provide services, how they can be competitive and how they can be inclusive. We live in a world where change is fairly immediate. It doesn’t just happen every five years, 10 years, it happens fairly quickly, and so we don’t make the decisions for these institutions, but we do partner with them and try to be problem solvers. Our culture here is really being a problem solver, being pragmatic and focusing on building value-added partnerships.

C&S: DASNY recently completed its highest value project in its history. What other big projects are in DASNY’s future?

GB: We’re doing a project with (CUNY) with the Fashion Institution of Technology and we are probably one of the few large capital development projects for the city university system. A lot of stuff that we’re doing with them right now is maintenance. We’re doing work in Staten Island with respect to the office of mental health. We have a sizable project that we’re working on that we think is really going to be an economic development engine and help as the renaissance of Staten Island. We continue to do work upstate with the SUNY system. We have a big project in Brockport that we’re commencing. We’re doing work with Alfred University and Geneseo, so it runs the gamut. The nature of capital work today is a little different from what it was a number of years ago. The large projects, it goes in cycles and we’re seeing many more smaller and mid-sized projects, as we talked to you about the work we’re doing with storm recovery and a lot of the rehab work. We on the things we continuously do is summer work for SUNY, that’s a big thing. I think we’re going to (provide permitting) and partner with the Empire State Development Corporation with Javits (Center), that’s a very important project for the governor. We’re going to (provide permitting) with (ESDC) on some aspects of (Farley Post Office Moynihan Station). Those are two very important projects. There are other things out there – but it’s a little early.