Picture Courtesy: http://sustainablecapitalregion.org/
Peter B. Fleischer, Executive Director
(July 16, 2012) Across all of New York, hundreds of citizens and officials are working on regional economic development and sustainability plans. This intense buzz of activity is the current phase of the state-sponsored Regional Economic Development Council (REDC) and Cleaner Greener (CGC) processes. By December, if 2011 is a guide, Governor Cuomo will make multi-million dollar awards and announcements. The hope is that we citizens will be the real winners, as our public monies are re-directed to efforts that make New York more economically competitive and environmentally sustainable. Empire State Future has monitored the State-led processes since their unveiling last-August.
Last fall, we opined that the REDC effort is an improvement from prior economic development practice that too often resulted in the over-subsidization of economically non-viable but politically-connected projects. Despite the fact that many of the members of the ten Regional Councils were hand-picked by the Governor, these groups do meet in public, they do post their deliberations, they do include many elected local officials and they appear to be responsive to local and regional needs and concerns. This should not be surprising as many of the co-chairs are community leaders, university presidents, corporate heads, and civic figures who have independent local stature, local ties and their own good reasons to be responsive to regional needs.
Last year, after reviewing all ten strategic economic development plans, ESF noted that about sixty percent of the projects were textbook smart growth. We further noted that perhaps twenty percent were necessary and equity-oriented, such as workforce training and development. This means that we viewed less than twenty percent of the proposals as unwise – notably sprawl investments centered on rural highway interchanges and suburban business parks – a dated model that has proven detrimental to foundational economic growth, equity and the environment.
When last year’s “winners” were announced, we were further pleased. Western New York made downtown revitalization central to their efforts – in Buffalo, yes, and along main street in rural Olean too. Central New York keeps their focus on existing infrastructure investments and connectivity between major assets such as Syracuse University, the Civic Center and the downtown. Long Island highlighted smart growth and transit-oriented development repeatedly in their plan and presentation to the review committee. The vast North Country made their largest single project a rehabilitation of an old rail line so that product could be moved by train not truck.
The new state grant process, called the Consolidated Funding Application (CFA), allows proposers to write one grant even if they may be seeking funding from several state agencies or departments. This approach appears to be a procedurally useful simplification that also highlights the role of regional decision-making.
So what about this year? Can we improve the process and results even more in year two with added time (last year was highly compressed)? The State has gone on the road to elicit participation and walk would-be proposers through the CFA process in advance of project submission. Recent sneak peeks of state project scoring methodologies suggest that smart growth criteria are largely guiding state review efforts. Our formal request that REDC processes operate under the Public Infrastructure Policy Act appears to have been considered, though not everywhere…
This year, through the Cleaner Greener Communities process, the Regional Councils have been tasked with creating regional Sustainability Plans — being marketed as smart growth plans. These plans, each with $800,000 to $1 million in funding, will be unveiled by year’s end. The best plans will divvy up about $30 million of Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) money in each of the next three years. RGGI funds are derived from the sale of air pollution credits.
Over the next months the CGC partners have the floor to demonstrate to the REDC committees that sustainability breeds economic vitality. Sustainability metrics will be developed for the CGC plans, offering innovative ways to measure economic development. The new tools can be integrated fully into the REDC strategic plans and review — acting as guides rather than side notes — enhancing the current process for measuring economic, environmental and social equity concerns. This would lead to enhanced regional smart growth criteria serving as the guide for all economic development efforts.
Getting economic development to work well in New York State means adopting efforts that produce lasting economic activity that raises the standard of living and opportunities available to the many, not just the few. It means spending our limited infrastructure and economic development monies as investments for the future not just activity for now. It means funding projects that improve our environment and quality of life, rather than degrade our open spaces, air and water quality.
It is obvious and important that job creation should be a major focus of the regional councils. Our unemployed need to be back at work, our economies need to be revived. But while aiming for these goals, the councils should fashion scoring mechanisms that emphasize good and strategically-located jobs, not just any jobs, sustainable economic activity, not just any activity, and environmental sustainability that has economic potential in and of itself. Smart growth efforts such as transit-oriented development, water/sewer repair, agricultural infrastructure, and public transit are among the most cost-efficient forms of economic activity and good, local job creation. They need to be emphasized.
ESF has noted that the buzz about the roughly $1 billion annually available to the regional councils oddly exceeds discussion about the $12-15 billion spent each year statewide on infrastructure, let alone the state’s $132 billion budget. While we call for a statewide infrastructure policy that prioritizes the kind of infrastructure investments that have the highest economic return to the public, the Cleaner Greener and the REDCs are new and now and can set the trend for infrastructure planning. Regionally, accountable citizens and community leaders are shaping decisions that should matter to all of us, now and in the future.
ESF has asked to meet with all 20 co-chairs and all 10 regional councils. We will be doing this over the next few months. We ask you, our readers and supporters to join us and help make sure that your council makes your growth robust, smart and regionally-appropriate. These processes are the framework that can lead to real revitalization along your main street, in your downtown, or in your town center.