Has the time finally come to fix upstate cities? If so, there is a way.

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Eye from Albany
February 2004

Has the time finally come to fix upstate cities? If so, there is a way.
by Paul M. Bray

A physician told me that the time to do a hip replacement is when the patient feels the pain is too much to take. One can say the same for what it takes for state government to act. For example, over more than a decade there was stalemate in Suffolk County about a large area of Pine Barrens as environmentalists and builders battled over ecologically sensitive land located above a critical aquifer. Finally, when half solutions fashioned by the State Legislature and court battles led nowhere and, if not real pain, then at least there was complete frustration, the State became a key force is fashioning a compact solution involving three neighboring towns, Suffolk County and the State.

Conflict and stalemate occurred during the Cuomo administration over New York City’s need to protect its reservoirs in the Catskill watershed. Many billions of dollars were at stake if New York City was going to be unable to convince the Federal government that it could guarantee the protection of the water quality of its Catskill reservoirs. If it couldn’t make the guarantee, it would have to pay for filtration. But proof of protection meant that the Catskill towns would have to assure tighter land use controls and see more of their land be acquired by the City thereby removing the possibility of its development. This inherent conflict was complicated by the bad blood that Catskill residents have felt for generations over the loss of their forbearer’s land. Here was another intractable problem until Governor Pataki engaged in getting New York City and the Catskill towns to fashion a balanced agreement or compact.

It is amazing what the State can achieve when it is willing to move beyond inertia and play fix it. The question is whether the plight of the incredibly shrinking upstate cities, their stagnant economies and cash starved counties has reached the level where the pain is going to force state government to get its hands dirty and to fix it.

Identifying the problem is not difficult. Competitive modern economies are regional and need to be organized in an efficient manner. Upstate regions are anything but efficient. The relatively modest Utica-Rome region, for example, is fragmented into 80 separate local governmental jurisdictions. There is little wonder that Erie County Executive Joel Giambra has declared that, “Albany must not only allow local governments to merge, it must use a stick to force them to merge. aid to local governments that insist on going their own way and protecting the status quo, including cities, should cease.”

So far, state government has shown no willingness to change this status quo. The Governor’s 2004 State of State Address offered impressive economic goals but instead of structural reform talked about moving forward the following traditional big-ticket projects:

The Renaissance Center in Rochester; Destiny USA in Syracuse; A new convention center in Albany; Modernizing the convention center in the North Country to continue Lake Placid’s standing as the number one winter resort in the East; Working with Mayor Bloomberg to build on the success of the AirTrain project and develop a new job hub at Jamaica station; Redeveloping our valuable waterfronts in each borough; Building a true convention center at Javits; Transforming the West Side; and Bringing the 2012 Summer Olympics to NYC. Image, investing in Destiny USA, a most mega of mega malls just as the extinction of mega malls is beginning. This is a losing bet if there ever was one. And isn’t there a national glut of convention center facilities?

The focus on economic development projects programs like Empire Zones, Centers of Excellence, Small Cities Aid, and the Quality Communities rather than structural reform indicates that the Albany still hasn’t felt enough of the pain that upstate cities and counties are feeling. Yet, the rhetoric and cries of pain from upstate and counties across the State are growing.

What I find curious if not discouraging is that the path to structural reform could easily be adopted from the LI Pine Barrens and Catskill watershed success. That path is the compact process whereby the stakeholders in a region, meaning the counties, cities, towns and villages and, directly or indirectly the State, come to the table and negotiate a plan covering a range of programs and policies. Driven in part by State incentives like indemnification in case of lawsuits and carrots for infrastructure development, the stakeholders cut a deal amongst themselves on matters like major infrastructure investment, regional land use considerations like sitting of regional facilities and identification of optimal areas for growth and conservation, economic development incentives, sharing services and use of incremental revenue.

David Rusk, former Mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico and now a consultant on urban policy, has been pitching the compact approach in upstate areas like Erie County and the Utica-Rome area. In a speech before the Chamber Alliance of the Mohawk Valley, Rusk outlined his notion of the compact that would have Oneida County government be “the strong manager, the unifying agent on behalf of the region” with its 48 localities signing on.

Amongst the good things of the compact approach is that it has been used consensually with each stakeholder having a seat at the negotiating table. In the case of the LI Pine Barrens, the operable plan had to be approved by every one of the three towns and the county and State or the plan was dead. This drop-dead prospect created pressure on each party to negotiate and ultimately sign the document. Of course, the 10s of millions of dollars that the State put forth to protect land in the designated Pine Barrens preserve didn’t hurt.

Yes, there is a way to bring about regional competitiveness other than allowing cities to annex their suburbs or having the State use a stick to force localities to merge. That way is the compact. The mystery is what keeps the powers that be in Albany from using it. Governor Pataki rolled up his sleeves and forged a compact for the Catskill watershed. Why the distressed upstate urban regions don’t deserve the same level of attention and skilled leadership is hard for me to understand.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental law firm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is pmbray@aol.com.