New York – it’s one State, Stupid

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Eye from Albany
May 2006

New York – it’s one State, Stupid
by Paul M. Bray

Eliot Spitzer declared in a speech on the upstate economy (or Appalachia north) that: “The amount of venture capital invested in Upstate is paltry compared to other parts of the country. The ‘Recipe for Renaissance’ report by Excellus stated last year: ‘Without question, the scarcity of venture capital is the biggest obstacle currently standing in the way of Upstate’s burgeoning high-tech and biotech industries.'” Spitzer concludes, “Increasing access to capital is essential if we are to realize the potential of our strategic industries.”

What Spitzer is saying is true, but the curious thing is how upstate, so near to the financial capital of the world in New York City, is a black hole when it comes to financing its future. How come the venture capitalists in New York City can’t see Upstate’s burgeoning high-tech and bio-tech opportunities?

19th century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disreali, highlighted a regrettable but not an uncommon characteristic, that of a political construct like a nation or a state being divided. Disreali was trying to rhetorically awaken the Tory party to the wide gulf between the rich and poor that to a greater or lesser extent carries on as part of the human condition. Frequently, the divide is like New York’s, between prosperous and less prosperous sections of a state.

In April Columbia historian Kenneth Jackson spoke at the State Museum about our Empire City, Empire State and he related how we flourished and “defined the larger American experience” in periods like colonial settlement, the American Revolutionary War, the opening of the Erie Canal and the development of modes of transportation like rail, air and highway when New York City and State were in step.

Yet, Jackson said, “when Americans think of history they do not think of New York”. He went on to ask why this was so since, “the State has more museums, more curators, more historical societies, more exhibition halls, and more colleges and universities than any other State. It also has more than a dozen urban cultural parks (actually 19 heritage areas), more than three hundred historic districts, and more than a thousand architectural landmarks and monuments.

What is missing has been cooperation and coordination, whether among institutions or regions or between warring upstate and downstate constituencies. The State has not had a conceptual framework that focuses on the entire State and demonstrates that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Crucial events, historic buildings, and important movements have added significance when they are interpreted within a larger pattern. The simple truth is that the whole of New York State is not on the historical map of most Americans or even in the consciousness of most New Yorkers.”

University of Wisconsin environmental historian William Cronon who authored the book Nature’s Metropolis about how Chicago established itself as the major Midwestern metropolis emphasizes the importance of the connection between concentrated city markets and how they are fed by an extensive regional hinterland. In other words great cities are inextricably interrelated to their hinterlands, albeit that overtime the linkages between city and countryside tend to be concealed. Cronon points out in the case of Chicago, “that technology and finance quickly and quietly led to a layering of reality that caused people to forget their original connections to the local market and environment”.

Despite the potential mutual benefit of realizing and understanding the linkages and connections between upstate NY and New York City and the need for benefits, the signs point to emphasizing differences rather than capitalizing on connections.

One example is the campaign supported by the Business Council and some upstate Chambers of Commerce to “Unshackle Upstate” or region specific reform. The argument is that upstate and downstate have separate economies and “New York City can sustain the cost of programs that upstate cannot afford”. While there is some truth in this, it ignores the revenue that flows from downstate to support state programs and the market and environmental connections that make the whole of New York much, much greater than if it were two separate states.

My modest suggestion is for a campaign to highlight and foster the linkages and connections between upstate and downstate. As I understand it, Eric Mower, Chief Executive Officer of Eric Mower & Associates in Syracuse and a member of the Executive Committee of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Commission, advocated that the Canalway visitor facility be located near the Battery in Lower Manhattan. An effort to advance recreation and tourism along a corridor from Lake Erie across the State to Lake Champlain can benefit greatly from visibility in the heart of New York City.

Upstate’s strengths include its lakes and waterways, vast parks like the Adirondack Park, heritage and diverse educational institutions. These are the cards that upstate economic interests should be using to bridge to and tap New York City resources including venture capital. After all, New York City is what one upstate Assemblyman called “the center of universe” and upstate can benefit can only benefit from ties to the center.

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.