Upstate: Replacing a culture of blame with a culture of building

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Eye from Albany
February 2000

Upstate: Replacing a culture of blame with a culture of building
by Paul M. Bray

Everyone knows the rap on upstate. The weather stinks, the tax burden and energy costs are high and regulations stringent, manufacturing has fled leaving a plague of brown fields, population relative to the nation’s population is declining and with it the State’s power on the national scene and we have a medieval State government. From the weather to government, there is lots to blame

The recently organized alliance of Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo business organizations called Advance Upstate New York has the answers. Its agenda is simple. Cut taxes and energy costs, reform Workers’ Compensation and repeal the Wicks Law and the upstate economy, unshackled, will take off.

At first their agenda sounds good. It won’t improve the weather, but who is against lower taxes and costs. If only economic revivals were so easy. Look closer at these business leaders and you see for the most part that they represent the remains of the traditional upstate economy trying to hold on in a fundamentally changed economic world.

The authors of Grassroots Leaders for a New Economy, an analysis of how places like Austin, Texas and Silicon Valley created thriving economies, would call what is going on in upstate New York an example of a self defeating ‘culture of blame’. It happens when existing business leaders control the political agenda sending out negative messages to support policies needed to maintain decade old ways. The business agenda is less an answer to economic plight than a drag to economic revival.

Look again at upstate and you can see the germination of a new economic revival in information technologies based on the vast area’s educational, transportation, urban and environmental assets. The economic answer is inside the regions of upstate based on emerging collaborative economies.

Upstate has the right fundamentals for a vital 21st century economy with its industries of the mind like bio technology, software, micro electronics, telecommunications and the environment. It will be based around major university centers in Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Binghampton, Cornell and Buffalo supported by colleges, community colleges and professional schools.

Each university center will be the engine of competitive regions linked by world class high tech/transportation corridors like the Thruway and recreation ways/heritage corridors. From these university engines with their technology, research capacity, tech transfer infrastructure and business partnerships will come new products and a new generation of manufacturing jobs.

While New York State is lagging in getting on the high tech band wagon compared to some states, a good sign is New York’s recently created Jobs 200 program with can lead to investment of more than a half billion dollars in to high tech research, infrastructure improvements, new high tech companies and job retraining. Perhaps state leaders are getting the message that competitive economics has more to do with research and development than tax cuts and workers? compensation costs.

But if upstate pockets of technological innovation like the University at Albany/Rensselear Politecnic Institute in areas like micro electronics and the University of Rochester in biomedical sciences are to flourish, the culture needs to change big time from one of blame to a culture of building.

A culture of building recognizes the new economic assets and invests in them. Here is how. The Governor should begin by convening a Governor’s conference with the simple agenda of identifying “What is good about upstate”. Success stories will come to the fore. These gathers create an impetus for spurring change and building social capital meaning people working together.

Credibility requires creating a dramatic investment agenda like, for example, a commitment of one billion dollars for research and development in upstate over the next five years and a two hundred million dollars investment in upstate quality of life and the environment.

The quality of life and environment investment would include access and recreational infrastructure projects to make the Erie Canal a world class historic and recreational attraction and historic preservation projects for the state heritage areas in cities like Albany, Troy/Cohoes, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. That is big money, but look at the investment the Pataki administration has made in the Adirondack Park and what it is talking about for the Hudson River and Long Island Sound. Upstate?s natural environment should not be second to any other natural region of the State.

And finally, like the way the I Love New York campaign took the State’s tourism economy up many notches, the State needs to aggressively market its high tech assets and success stories to the world. There is even a positive spin to the pleasures and recreational opportunities to the four seasons of upstate.

If a culture of building is created, the perception of a cold weather and high tax and cost upstate will be replaced with a perception of a high quality of life area attractive to the innovators, entrepreneurs and workforce of industries of the mind with a destiny to succeed.