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Accelerate Upstate

A conference wrapped in a cliche inside a metaphor

Last week was the biggest for economic development in Western New York in recent memory. Not for groundbreakings or ribbon-cuttings, but for potential and portent. On Wednesday, the first of New York’s 10 regional economic development councils met in Western New York, co-chaired by UB President Satish Tripathi and visionary developer Howard Zemsky. The very next day, the two-day “Accelerate Upstate” conference got underway in downtown Buffalo, organized primarily by the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership as a followup to the half-decade-old Unshackle Upstate initiative. Earlier in the week, Sam Hoyt, an influential member of the Assembly for nearly two decades and frequent champion of progressive causes, officially started work as a senior economic development official in the Cuomo administration, at his new office in the Cobblestone District.

As it happened, the fortuitously timed (in the works for over a year) Accelerate Upstate conference that became the centerpiece of this activity proved to be not only informative and thought-provoking but also a firing range for a barrage of metaphorical speech—from standard business (“window of opportunity” and “trickle down”) to animal (“getting our ducks in a row,” “800-pound gorilla”) to, of course, sports (“We’re in the mountain stage,” “We’re at the 50-yard line”). There was metaphor galore, but also some eye-opening information presented by some very bright people.

The first of these was keynote speaker Kenneth Adams, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new head of the Empire State Development Corporation and former president of the Business Council of New York State. While some of his talk was an inevitable laundry list of programs, Adams also laid out the opportunity. As far as he and Cuomo are concerned, everything that’s happening is built on the foundation of the legislative session that concluded just last month. And it was one for the record books: From ethics reform in government to balancing the budget without new taxes or borrowing (a recent rarity among states), from enactment of a property tax cap (a goal of Unshackle Upstate from the beginning) to setting up regional councils to localize state priorities, a major goal of the session was to send a message to the business community. Although other governors have proclaimed New York “open for business,” this governor, for the first time in recent memory, has a phalanx of legislative accomplishments to back up the assertion.

His leave-no-business-jargon-behind speech (samples: “optimize assets,” “maximize potential,” “eliminate barriers to growth,” “streamline delivery”) may have distracted many listeners from noticing that Adams didn’t offer much hard currency as incentive. All 10 regional councils will be competing for a share of a billion dollars statewide, which, as Adams pointed out, is actually existing funds that have been allocated to various state agencies—and in reality, is less than one percent of the state budget. “In other words, it’s essentially nothing,” whispered a member of Buffalo’s control board seated at my table. The administration seems to be banking on the hope that even a small incentive will bring regional stakeholders to the table and motivate them to change both the way the state does business and the way they work together.

The panel discussions over the two days reinforced a sense of expectant change. One session touched on challenges that Upstate and Downstate have in common. For example, even Westchester County is having a problem with vacant commercial buildings and folks leaving for lower-tax pastures. (Connecticut is a short drive away.) Also, not all parts of New York City have benefited from the decades-long boom that Manhattan has enjoyed. One of the panelists, from Brooklyn, said that the economy of her borough “looks very much like Erie County.”

Other panelists came from regions of other states that have faced challenges similar to Western New York’s. Especially effective has been Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania, which in recent decades has managed to transform its economy while learning to compete for resources that have historically gone to the much larger city of Philadelphia. Leaders there credit their success to building a “culture of regional cooperation” over a decade. They’ve also developed a strong caucus in the state legislature, which has success in horse-trading with the Philadelphia-area legislators.

In another session, ESDC’s Western New York regional director, Christina Orsi, explained that Cuomo and her agency were interested in making strategic public investment in “transformative projects” that “set the table” for future investment. In Western New York, she cited Canalside in Buffalo and Old Falls Street in Niagara Falls, both projects in which ESDC has played central roles—through Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation in Buffalo, and the USA Niagara Development Corporation in the Falls. I asked Orsi and the other panelists what they thought some other transformational projects might be, but none would take the bait with a specific project.

The lunch session on Friday, listening to Amy Liu, deputy director of the Brookings Institution and co-founder of its Metropolitan Policy Program, was like trying to drink from a fire hose. Working for one of the nation’s preeminent think tanks, Liu came armed with a bottomless arsenal of data, graphs, and charts. Her main points? Exports are a huge untapped potential for Upstate, as relatively few companies in our region export—or export to more than one country—while 95 percent of the world’s consumers live outside the US. Domestically, our government, business, and consumer sectors are not increasing spending, so we need to look for growth outside US markets. Also, the “green economy” is something Brookings has been studying in sector-by-sector detail. Revenue, jobs, and growth are much better in clean technology—driven in part by other nations’ increasing environmental standards—but according to Liu we must innovate our way out of the middle of the pack. Above all, we need to take control of economic development ourselves, as “there are clearly no adults left in Washington.” Ponder that.

A high point of the conference was the participation of former broadcast news veteran Garrick Utley. As a kid interested in world affairs, I was a fan of his clear and authoritative reporting for NBC News and later for ABC. Few know the world like Utley, and now, through his work as president of the Levin Institute at the SUNY Global Center in Manhattan, he is again about the mission of bringing the world a little closer to all of us, through his New York in the World initiative. As I walked several blocks with Utley on Friday, he told me that his work is driven largely by increasing concern about the sustainability of New York City’s economic engine. Although the five boroughs together represent 55 percent of the economic output of the state, it’s based largely on financial services which won’t perpetuate.

The aim of Utley’s New York in the World project is—per its mission statement—to create a “foundation for a broad public discussion and sound decision making in the state and city about New York’s competitive position in the world, and its ability to sustain and grow the standard and quality of life of its people.” Among his advisory council members are locals Kathryn Foster, director of the UB Regional Institute, and Robert Wilmers, chairman and CEO of M&T Bank.

Progressives have tended to be suspicious of economic development plans and programs, because they often involve giving away sorely need tax revenues, scarce hydropower allotments, and even dollars directly from government for projects that don’t create the jobs or economic benefits advertised. Progressives also tend to be rightly concerned when they hear talk of the public university system more as an “engine for economic development” and less as “affordable education for all.” The small circle of economic development professionals and the site-selection consultants and corporate executives with whom they lunch, golf, and make deals can seem a closed priesthood to those who just want to improve the community.

At the risk of oversimplifying a diverse community with wide-ranging interests, what progressives want instead is smart and sustainable community development. Putting communities to work improving their own communities as they want them improved. Rehabbing buildings and making them energy-efficient and lead safe. Environmental remediation, habitat restoration, and green infrastructure. Improving the quality of schools, supporting working families, reforming political leadership. Making and selling things locally, including locally raised, healthy food.

But are the goals of the rolled-up-sleeves progressives really at odds with the medium-starch-on-a-hanger economic development professionals? Isn’t community development economic development? I put that question to Andrew Rudnick last week, and he doesn’t see it that way—although he said that a lot of what progressives are doing is “good work,” specifically in reference to the work of Aaron Bartley and PUSH Buffalo.

But recent developments could present progressives with an opportunity. By capitalizing on the uncertainties and fluidity of the current economic climate, new thinking on the economic future of New York, and the new regional development frameworks, progressives have an opportunity to advance causes and projects of critical importance. Especially with strong allies and potential allies playing key roles in the process. How does all the stars in alignment grab you as a metaphor?

So what’s a good progressive to do? The conference itself provided some answers.

First: Organize. Accelerate Upstate builds on the Unshackle Upstate campaign that’s already several years old, and a product of substantial organizational development. The common thread at the “800 Pound Gorilla” panel discussion is that 80 10-pound monkeys won’t be a counterweight if they don’t stick together.

Second: Change the culture. At the conference there was a lot of talk about fundamental changes in economic development in Albany and breaching the Upstate/Downstate divide. That will take time, but the combination of the current crisis and the opportunity presented by the regional councils can help that cultural shift take hold.

Third: Reach into the belly of the beast. One of the panelists, Ken Warner of Rochester, is executive director of UNICON, a partnership between construction unions and economic development agencies which gives labor a seat at the table as businesses are recruited and seek economic development aid.

Fourth: Use work groups. ESDC will be open to stakeholder participation in the work groups planned for the regional economic development councils, but why wait for whatever groups it suits them to create? Progressives can form their own group or groups, around issues of importance or projects of potential impact. Take as a precedent the Canalside Cultural Steering Committee that was formed last year by ECHDC, due to the initiative of citizen activist Peter Dow.

Fifth: How about the Progressive Plan? Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution warned the regional councils against adopting existing plans and proposals and putting a new cover on them. Rather, she said, it’s time for economic development to form new partnerships with business, civic, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors. Western New York’s progressive community has the chops to put together a regional economic development plan vastly superior to the usual clip of silver bullets that the siloed, oligopolistic interests will likely spray out. And, for once, there are people and mechanisms in place that should assure it a fair hearing. What’s to lose?

The governor has put the ball squarely in the court not only of business interests and folks involved in traditional economic development but all of us. We don’t know how the ground will shift in this economic development sea change, but progressives need to compete vigorously to stay on the field and at the table. The planets are aligning, and the 800-pound gorilla is awaiting our next field goal attempt with baited breath. The old economic development playbook has been thrown out the window of opportunity. There’s a fork in the road—it’s up to us to take it.

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