Mauling of the State

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Eye from Albany
February 2002

Mauling of the State
By Paul M. Bray

In only three decades regional shopping malls have had a pronounced impact on our communities and way of life. These usually windowless, bunker-like structures surrounded by a sea of asphalt are mostly accessible only by personal vehicle. They have mortally wounded downtowns and main streets that were our traditional market and community gathering places.

Confined in location and with a singularity of purpose, a privately controlled machine for selling and entertainment, malls seemed to have reached their apex of impact on our lives. Like them or not, they are a reality. One can ignore malls and chose, as I do, to simply avoid them by shopping in the few remaining urban stores or by catalogue, but it is impossible to deny their reality. They won’t go away in the foreseeable, but what more damage can they do?

Be ware, at least some mall developers have designs on swallowing the State or at least raiding its treasury.

The end of the 2001 legislation enabling more gambling in the State (another mauling of the State) included provisions for the creation of independent downstate and upstate tourism councils to promote and develop tourism in their respective portions of the State. The councils or at least the upstate council was the brain-child of Pyramid Mall’s Robert Congel, a contractor turned mall owner who intends to build a $1.5 billion expansion of its Carousel Mall in Syracuse. When completed it would be the largest mall in the nation, surpassing the Mall of America in Minnesota by 500,000 square feet.

The councils are given wide powers to plan and implement marketing programs, operate and maintain tourism information facilities, utilize the staff and facilities of state agencies, make grants and develop cooperative education and training programs. The upstate council is to be funded by sales tax revenues collected if the 3.2 million square foot planned expansion of the Carousel Mall becomes a reality. The downstate council is unfunded and seems to be a throw in as window dressing so as not to ignore downstate.

Congel’s vision is a mall that is “a world-class leisure destination attracting over 10 million visitors from outside New York State annually” with an economic output of $10 billion. Not a small thinker, it is reported in Forbes that Congel “likens his project to that of Governor DeWitt Clinton, whose Erie Canal transformed the economy of a young state back in the 1820s”. The talk going with this vision is all about coalescing by brand name and marketing the myriad of natural, man-made and recreational attractions across upstate New York.

Some critics see this as simply a gimmick for Pyramid Mall to get public funding through sales tax revenue for an exposition center as part of the mall expansion. Let the taxpayer pay for this artificial tourist attraction as they frequently do for construction of major sports facilities.

The question is whether this is really about applying the mall model of anchor and smaller shops to the whole upstate region with the Carousel Mall in Syracuse as the anchor, a rising tide to raise all ships creating a leisure destination in Syracuse or is simply that it “will represent a place to where you will experience dining fantasies, lifestyle shopping, sports and recreation activities and great entertainment all encompassed in a luxury resort environment” of a mall. In other words, will this bring life to upstate communities as the Erie Canal once did or is the Big Syracuse Mall going to suck more life out of the landscape of upstate attractions as malls have done to downtown?

Can anyone believe that a major destination attraction as Congel is seeking to develop going to foster travel and visitation throughout the upstate area? I remember when one of the first of the major discounters, Cohoes Manufacturing, that attracted bus loads of shoppers from across the State and places like Connecticut offered free or very inexpensive lunch on the premises so that its shoppers didn’t go off to see neighboring sites like the Harmony Mills and Cohoes Falls. Malls are not known for contributing to the upgrade of the communities from which they draw their shoppers let alone connecting with them except by roadway.

The State’s tourism professionals who feed off of the I Love New York’s tourism promotion program aren’t happy at this interloper that threatens their kingdom. They have long called for a dedicated stream of revenue to support tourism promotion but this doesn’t do it for them as it is out of their control. Be care about what you want.

On the failed opportunity side of ledger, this Mall centered tourism initiative is but another example of the bankruptcy of New York’s tourism efforts that I wrote about in my September 2000 column. We need to align efforts to grow the State’s tourism economy with our parks and heritage assets, not with our shopping malls. Otherwise, it is simply an example of Albany being sold a bill of goods by Mr. Congel that, in the words of Forbes’ writer Daniel Kruger, “might end up more like Syracuse’s many dead ends on the path to economic revival”. When will the Albany powers ever learn?