When Marissa Brett was fresh out of Westchester Community College in 1997, the woman who is now president of the Westchester County Association – and the driving force behind The Blueprint for Westchester – may have booked your ticket from JFK to Amsterdam-Schiphol.
But Brett’s first job out of college, as a reservation agent for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, didn’t really excite her in the six months she was there.
“They merged with Northwest, so it was time to find something new anyway,” Brett says of her brief time with KLM. She quickly landed in the real estate industry at Albert B. Ashforth Inc., a commercial real estate firm based in Stamford.
“I started as a receptionist, I moved into an assistant service administrator position, and from there I started to be a part of some of the marketing. It really interested me,” Brett says of her stint with Ashforth, which at the time managed a portfolio with 1.4 million square feet of commercial office space. “I went back to school nights and weekends and got my degree in marketing.”
Leadership at Ashforth gave her opportunities to get involved in the marketing aspects of the business. By the time she left in 2005, she was managing the marketing of the entire portfolio. Brett oversaw a marketing budget of $350,000 and, in light of her accomplishments, was named to The Business Council of Westchester’s Rising Stars. It was that early exposure that stoked Brett’s passion for marketing and launched her career on an arc that continues to curve upward.
From Ashforth, Brett joined the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corp., where the marketing focus was different.
“The transition was from marketing the real estate of one specific portfolio to marketing the buildings and sites and development opportunities of a whole entire region,” Brett says. “It was taking what I was doing onto a much bigger scale. Then I got into the development of ‘shovel-ready’ sites and municipalities.”
After almost six years with the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corp., Brett came to the Westchester County Association. Her initial role, as executive director of economic development, put her behind the wheel of the Blueprint for Westchester, a multimillion-dollar, multiyear initiative to revitalize Westchester’s economy.
“Coming on board with the county association, that’s where my role really expanded beyond just marketing properties into getting involved in and creating communities where you can work, live, and play, and repurposing sites and the need to do that in order to create ratables (properties on the tax rolls) and attract talent,” Brett says.
The challenge for Brett and the Westchester County Association is to keep Westchester moving forward and reinventing itself. The results are starting to follow. Brett points to the multibillion-dollar health care industry presence in the county as a driving force behind the county’s economic future.
“If you look at where the growth is, it’s in that sector. Memorial Sloan Kettering (West Harrison) is a good example. It’s a building that has been transformed into a health sciences use,” Brett says of the multimillion dollar campus, which recently opened on Westchester Avenue. “We’re seeing more and more, whether it’s tech companies developing software for this sector, or research and development. We’ve planted the flag saying, ‘We are going to capitalize on this and really create an identity for ourselves.’”
This is what, Brett says, sets Westchester County apart from other places. Often, cities that see a loss of an industry or market segment struggle to reinvent themselves, drifting for years in an economic stupor.
“We’re not so stuck in what we do next. We’ve found what we do next in Westchester,” Brett says. “It’s just a matter of execution, and some of it is already starting to happen. One of the huge opportunities we have in this county is in capitalizing on an infrastructure we already have in place.”
Part of the reinvention – the revitalization of the Interstate 287 corridor in Harrison and White Plains – is moving forward, which Brett sees as a positive step.
“Among the most exciting news on the I-287 corridor is that the Harrison Town Board moved on to the planning board a proposal for multifamily residential on Corporate Park Drive,” Brett says.
Millions of square feet of office space along I-287 have been lying fallow, forcing property owners and developers to find creative solutions and adaptive reuses.
“A million square feet (of space) has been occupied, and we’ve really seen our advocacy efforts pan out. We’ve been advocating for the repurposing of existing sites and rezoning,” Brett says. “White Plains has allowed new uses along the I-287 corridor, and the town of Harrison has updated their master plan, so they’re going to be allowing laboratory and retail and residential use, and that’s all critical to the development of the 287 corridor.”
When the workweek finally ends, Brett takes a break from shaping the future of Westchester and works on shaping the future of her two sons.
“A typical weekend in our house is a Friday night movie night. The three of us make popcorn, sit on the couch and watch movies,” says Brett. “Then Saturday and Sunday, it’s soccer practice, soccer games, that’s what they do.”
Brett told WAG that she coached last year but is sticking to cheering from the sidelines this season.
“They’re 6 and 9 years old, and they keep me on my toes and extremely happy. They light up my life,” says Brett. “That’s my life, work and my boys.”