Eye on the Prize: The Regional Council Awards

Posted by & filed under Opinion, Our Blog Posts, Regional, State.

By Peter B. Fleischer, Executive Director

(November 29, 2011)

I have been listening to the Regional Council presentations over the web. It is a fascinating and innovative way to seek economic development. That said, I do not envy the committee’s task of having to choose amongst the many apples and oranges.  As a statewide entity, Empire State Future does not pick favorites regionally.  But we do have an opinion or two…

Having listened to half of the presentations and read all ten strategic plans, Empire State Future reaffirms our publicly stated belief that Regional Councils have the potential to foster economic development through a decentralized, inclusive, transparent process.   Our preliminary review of the Strategic Plans and Priority Project lists from the 10 Councils reinforces this view.  We are impressed with the seriousness of the regional planning efforts.  We were also pleased by the highlighted mention of smart growth approaches and goals in both the written plans (Western NY, Capital District) and in the November 28th oral presentation (Long Island).

We are heartened by the sincere attempts to maximize equitable, fiscally and environmentally sustainable, job creation.  Most regions focus heavily on existing educational, medical or cultural assets in places with existing population and infrastructure.  In fact, many regions make their heaviest investments in these assets or in efforts that improve upon existing infrastructure.

We are particularly pleased to see strong emphasis and substantial support for downtown revitalization and/or Transit-Oriented Development efforts.  Regions including Western, Central, Finger Lakes, Southern Tier, and Long Island have done this prominently.  Among the areas of highest proposed investments are projects that strengthen private sector collaborations with educational institutions (Hudson Valley, Capital District, Long Island, Finger Lakes) in transit-served municipalities from Valhalla to Troy to Rochester to Stonybrook.  Significant support was also proposed for promising business/academic partnerships at SUNY Alfred, Morrisville State College and the Trudeau Institute (Western, Central, North Country).

We note too the heavy and common emphasis on workforce development efforts.  In these times of high unemployment, and manufacturing job loss, we recognize the importance of needed re-training so long as it is made available in the areas of great need.  We also support the many energy efficiency or energy research projects (North Country, Southern Tier, Long Island, Western).  Such investments produce local jobs, raise home or office value, and support the goal of energy independence while increasing the disposal income available to many New Yorkers — particularly upstate.We are glad to see the emphasis given to agricultural infrastructure (Finger Lakes, Central, North Country, New York City).   Eighty percent of New York’s land mass is farmland or forest.   Eighty percent of New Yorkers have access to farmers’ markets.  We have a real opportunity to increase jobs through food-related businesses while helping to improve nutrition options for many.  Finally, we note the several efforts to enhance tourism and take advantage of New York’s diverse and spectacular natural beauty from Niagara Falls to the Adirondacks and the Hudson River.

All that said, we observe that some of the regions (Southern Tier, Mohawk Valley) give considerable emphasis to projects at far-flung, exurban, industrial parks or highway exchanges — places that have a history of accelerating the hollowing out of local cities while extending infrastructure past its point of cost-effectiveness.  These less than optimal project ideas are matched in some cases by project scoring schemes that give as little as one percent importance to the economy-of-scale goals of the Public Infrastructure Policy Act (North Country).

Meanwhile, some of the best examples of smart growth language in the strategic plans include: Western New York’s call for a Regional Smart Growth Coordinating Council, Central New York’s “Revitalizing our Region’s Urban Cores, Main Streets and Neighborhoods”; and the Capital Region’s highlighted inclusion of the Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Act.

Two Priority Projects emphasizing smart growth “game changers” are highlighted below:

  • Small Business Green Retrofit Initiative – “Provide incentive grants to small businesses and non-profit organizations throughout the region for pre-retrofit repairs on commercial properties to help businesses increase energy efficiency and stabilize central business districts (Western NY)
  • The redevelopment of the Hunts Point Produce Market (New York City)

In September, Empire State Future publicly opined (Getting New York to Work) on the role of infrastructure spending as an essential economic development tool in the job creation process.  We further suggested that if the Regional Councils were to prove themselves effective and inclusive, the $9 billion of state infrastructure spending might, over time, be added to the $40 million prize effort.  ESF went further suggesting that priority be given to infrastructure efforts that support:

1) Transit
2) Transit-Oriented Development
3) Clean/Drinking Water
4) Agricultural infrastructure and;
5) High-leverage, quality-of-life investments such as Poughkeepsie’s Walkway over the Hudson or Manhattan’s High Line.

Empire State Future’s core proposition is that infrastructure funds will from now on be limited and precious and need to be used in a synergistic “many birds with one stone” fashion.  Economic Development monies moreso.  We must insist that these limited public monies be treated as investments — doing the essential or seeking the highest rate of public return.

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