For the past four decades, Robert “Bob” Fonti has been a force in local political, governmental and business affairs. The Brooklyn-born Long Islander planted his roots here, and has a knack for effecting change in the name of good government and a prosperous business community.
Cutting his teeth in political affairs in the early 1980s, Fonti was a volunteer on the campaign to elect Gov. Mario Cuomo, New York’s first Italian-American governor. After the campaign he would take on a position with the lietenant governor’s office, while helping organize grassroots political campaigns on the side.
A resident of Huntington, Fonti helped lead campaigns of various public figures at the town, county, state and federal level. His keen sense of Long Islanders’ needs has enabled Fonti to influence policy and elected leaders that have helped shape Long Island as we know it.
“I had an opportunity to help make history, by doing something that was never done before in electing the first Italian-American governor,” Fonti says. “Working to elect the best leaders, regardless of political affiliation, is something that I have done really throughout my whole career.” Fonti was also instrumental locally in electing the state’s first-ever female governor, Kathy Hochul.
Just a few years into his career in the political realm, Fonti was well-known and launched his career in real estate and land use. With a robust network of decision-makers, political leaders and the business community, this is an arena where Fonti found near-immediate success.
By 1989, Fonti was named one of “New York’s Top Property Managers” by NY Habitat magazine. He would continue to grow his company’s influence through the 1990s. During this period, the Long Island real estate market evolved.
By 1994, Fonti’s company had a vast management portfolio, including 6 million feet of retail and commercial properties, as well as management of more than 2,300 apartments.
For the past two decades, Fonti has also served in a consultant role. Given the complicated and complex field of Long Island’s real estate market, Fonti has helped ensure that business owners can get shovels in the ground, to get projects off the ground and begin to benefit Long Islanders.
While many know Fonti in the political and real estate sectors, he has also been visible in the advocacy and nonprofit world. Fonti serves on various boards and is the co-chair of the Suffolk County Alliance of Chambers of Commerce, an organization that advocates for the advancement of Long Island’s collective business community.
“Developing strong intergovernmental relationships and partnerships has been so important,” he says. “I recently traveled into Nassau County to stand with County Executive Bruce Blakeman to help launch a ‘shop local’ initiative. Crossing county lines and navigating political ones for the betterment of all of Long Island’s business community has been my goal. My philosophy is to drive 10 cars ahead, work with the local stakeholders, communicate and collaborate. All politics and business are local.”
He is also a co-founder and past co-chair of Vision Long Island and is the Suffolk chairman of the Long Island Business Council. Both organizations have been an instrumental force in the advancement of Long Island downtowns. Hosting various summits throughout the year, Vision Long Island and the Long Island Business Council bring together the business leaders and the Island’s most notable decision-makers for free-flowing discussion about what Long Island’s economy will become in the future.
“I’ve always approached business with an island-wide focus,” he says. “You can’t get into Suffolk County without traveling through Nassau County. The regional approach and connecting with our partners in Nassau County helps us address the needs of the many, not of one. We all share the responsibility, and bear the burdens of small business together, so I believe we should work together.
“From our main streets, to our town and village halls, to our elected officials in Albany, investing in our downtowns means building partnerships and relationships with one another,” he continues. “I believe the key to the future of a thriving Long Island economy is the ‘Three C’s’: connection, communication and collaboration. An aligned business community, in my opinion, places us all in the same lifeboat.”
It is clear that Fonti believes that Long Island’s economic future is bright, if our business community makes the right investments now to prepare our island for the future. Fonti highlights the work that can be done in emerging markets, which will foster opportunities down the road.
“I encourage the people around me in the business community to think and create diversity in business and embrace emerging markets. Less is not more in this instance; instead, it is better to look at the millennial generation, Generation X population,” he says. “Our roundtables of business leaders should focus on these populations, and their needs, too. Broader thinking will help drive opportunity and bring effective results to Long Island.” One example of Long Island’s most important public-private opportunities, Fonti notes, is the creative partnerships in Midway Crossings in the Ronkonkoma Hub. “This transformative project will be a game-changer for Suffolk County and island-wide “ Fonti says.
Fonti is also commissioner of the Huntington Housing Authority, a position he has held for the past 22 years. Fonti’s approach in this position has helped move the town forward, specifically through fostering discussion and dialogue outside of the courtroom. Through co-equally important conversations Fonti has with the community and the movers and shakers who seek to bring progress to Huntington, Fonti has earned his reputation as a problem solver around the boardroom table.
“Problem solving is critical when doing business on Long Island, and being innovative and a forward thinker has always helped me foster partnerships,” he says. “While always keeping a finger on the pulse in our community, I have been able to settle qualms and find solutions to issues that had persisted for sometimes 20 years or more.”
Outside of the world of regional business, Fonti is actively involved in the region’s robust Italian-American community. He is vice president of New York’s Italian American Political Action Committee and also president of the Lt. Det. Joseph Petrosino Association in America.
Both of these organizations have been at the forefront of issues that are facing Long Island’s and New York State’s Italian-American communities, and have been instrumental in the fight to preserve the heritage and history of the Italian community.
For Fonti, the Lt. Det. Joseph Petrosino Association is one of his most ardent passions. The organization, named in honor of a hero NYPD officer killed in the line of duty while infiltrating organized crime, has received national acclaim.
“We must always remember those who have served and still serve, whether they’re wearing a badge, a uniform, or working to help communities from the bottom up,” he says. “We salute them all, and are grateful for their commitment and contributions. The largest voting block in New York State is Italian-Americans. Before we are Democrats or Republicans, you’re Italian-Americans. We reach out to other ethnic communities to build a bridge to have a united voice. We have more that unites us than divides us, when we provide each other the opportunity to listen.”
Fonti leads by example, with the goal of creating a thriving Long Island community from social, economic and fraternal aspects.
Todd Shapiro is an award-winning publicist and associate publisher of Dan’s Papers.