REDC Round 2: Growth, in the right place, done the right way?

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The Syracuse  Inner Harbor project, reinvigorating the waterfront with mixed-use development, is just one of many examples of how Central New York has continued their commitment to smart economic development in Round 2.

Peter Fleischer, Executive Director

(October, 17, 2012)   In this second year of the Regional Economic Development Council (REDC) process, there are more of what Empire State Future calls the “good” projects – growth in the right places, done the right way.  There are fewer “bad” projects – poor use of the public’s money.  This is heartening, particularly as ESF had viewed 2011 as a decent starting point.

Our recent analysis of the roughly 250 Priority Projects proposed by the 10 Regional Councils identifies roughly 50% of the proposals as supportive of the goals and principles of smart growth.  In 2011, roughly 40% of the proposed projects met smart growth criteria.  These 2012 projects include efforts to revitalize downtowns and main streets, provide affordable housing, expand waterfront access and development, improve and augment agricultural infrastructure or build on a community’s existing educational, medical or cultural assets.

The Elmira Regional Center proposal calls for the rehabilitation and transformation of an historic area of blighted and vacant properties in the central business district of the City of Elmira.

Based on Empire State Future’s analysis of available data of the requested REDC capital, tax credit funds and CFA agency dollars (8 of the 10 regions made this data available), we conclude that of the over $525 million requested in New York State support, over $250 million is firmly aligned with smart growth criteria.  This amount does not include valuable and necessary job training and industry investment which if done in a location efficient manner would be even more effective.

Over the next two months, state agency personnel will review these submissions to determine which projects will in fact be funded from the various state capital programs that feed into the REDC-linked funds.  If last year is a guide, projects aligned with smart growth criteria have a leg up and may help determine which regions will win the competitive grant process.

In 2011, the Central, Western and Long Island REDCs made downtown revitalization, connectivity and smart growth their main focus.  They fared best.  The North Country, also a winner in 2011, proposed in its largest project the reopening of a train line to move goods “smartly”.  ESF believes that many of the regions got the message and moved the needle toward projects such as the ones just mentioned that help lift many boats via efficient uses of public infrastructure monies.

Importantly, the number of bad projects – projects that would accelerate sprawl, inefficiently use public infrastructure dollars or subsidize efforts that seem to lack a public purpose – has decreased from roughly 20 percent of the total dollar-weighted submission to approximately 10 percent of the submissions.  There appear to be fewer attempts to grow suburban office/industrial parks at the expense of nearby cities.  Though there are some of these. There are a surprising number of projects calling for construction of new buildings in places that have high vacancy rates.  There are also some projects that support local initiatives or companies that obviously have regional support but probably would not rise to the top if objective outsiders were involved.  Still, the number of these questionable projects has fallen.

About 40% of the projects both years fall into the category we dub “good, or ok, but not smart growth”.  These projects fall largely into three categories – initiatives that retrain workers, support for existing manufacturing entities and academic collaborations in support of research, technology and health services.

College Town is a comprehensive plan to redevelop approximately 16 acres of University of Rochester-owned property in the City of Rochester and transform it into a vibrant neighborhood that will serve as a gateway to the City and the University.

Empire State Future clearly recognizes these as public or private initiatives that are worthy without being smart growth explicitly.  In these times of high unemployment, changes to our industrial mix, technological advancement and new forms of competition, domestic and foreign, it makes sense that the REDC’s seek to support such innovative or transformational efforts.

Still, there is a major smart growth opportunity even within this large group of projects.  Specifically, such efforts, across all three of the above mentioned categories, could, we would say should, go through a “location efficiency” screen.  So, for example, if a manufacturing entity deemed worthy of these economic subsidies, in regard to other entities in its region, is located in a green field or in a place with no public transit, it should lose points relative to a similar firm located near public transit or in a downtown.  If all else is roughly equal, the public subsidies should go to those entities that offer the region and the state value in terms of efficient use of existing infrastructure, support for transit, reduced VMT, lower GHG emissions, lessened effect on natural resources, etc.  Such a screen should be adopted by each of the 10 REDC’s in conjunction with the parallel Cleaner Greener efforts.  This will make sure that all of our values are reflected in the projects chosen and that these projects, using rare and limited public infrastructure dollars, return the highest possible return on investment to the public.

Particular, large dollar, smart growth project ideas that Empire State Future supports include:

  • The many efforts throughout the state that expand the processing, distribution and packaging businesses needed to support expansion of local agriculture.
  • Proposed mixed use, transit-oriented developments in Long Island.
  • Waterfront developments in New York City’s “outer” boroughs.
  • Mixed-use TOD in New Rochelle, Yonkers and Kingston in the Hudson Valley.
  • North Country alternative energy projects.
  • Southern Tier’s Elmira and Watkins Glen waterfront revitalization plans.
  • The Capital District’s Rensselaer waterfront mixed-use TOD project and Albany’s Kiernan Plaza high-tech concept.
  • The Genesee Street improvements in Utica, in the Mohawk Valley.
  • Finger Lakes’ focus on the Eastman Business Park in Rochester.
  • The several imaginative downtown renewal and reuse projects slated for Syracuse in CNY and Buffalo in WNY.

Over the past few weeks Governor Cuomo has begun his tour across the state to see how the millions of state dollars awarded in 2011 are being spent.  Recently, during his tour of Central New York’s progress the Governor stated: “cranes are in the air.  It means you are building, it means you are developing, it means you are moving forward.”

When those cranes are in existing urban areas and along our main streets — building projects that are supporting clusters, rebuilding the urban fabric, creating more livable live, work, play neighborhoods — we agree.  That is how we move New York State forward for the next wave of economic opportunities.

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