Thursday, May 10, 2007

Infotonics: Center of Embarrassment

The huge news out of Albany today is that New York State is giving $300 million to International Sematech, one of the world's most influential high-tech research outfits, to locate their global headquarters in our capital city. Sematech is currently based in Austin, TX and is widely credited with creating the economic boom that doubled the size of the Texas capital and putting the city in the global knowledge city lexicon. Simply put, "Smallbany" will never be the same and Rochester's status as THE high-tech center of Upstate New York is in peril. The sad fact is, if this region had its act together years ago, we could be sharing similar success.

Way back in 2001, then-Governor Pataki established a program to create five "Centers of Excellence" across the state that would leverage hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment and thousands of new jobs. The five original locations were in Albany (nanoelectronics), Buffalo (bioinformatics and life sciences), Long Island (information technology and software), Rochester (photonics and microsystems), and Syracuse (environmental systems). Rochester's Center of Excellence (CoE) in photonics and microsystems, or infotonics, combined the resources of the University of Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology, Eastman Kodak, Xerox, and Corning, among many others.

Unfortunately, the CoE is not located in Rochester; it's not even located in Monroe County. The 123,000 square foot former Xerox facility which houses the Infotonics Center (see pictures below) is 22 miles from downtown Rochester as the crow flies, in the high-tech hotbed that is Canandaigua; where cows easily outnumber college graduates. Why was it built there you ask? The long answer is that Xerox had just shut down their inkjet manufacturing plant in Canandaigua, there was adequate clean room space, and it would be inexpensive to start operations quickly. This, we were told, would ensure its success. The short answer though is that the folks in charge were idiots. This site was chosen despite the painfully obvious objections of a few smart folks who noticed that we cannot realize the full potential of this type of facility if it is not accessible to the students and researchers that would make it thrive. Monroe County, working with Eastman Kodak, gifted land in Canal Ponds Business Park in Greece to the facility and City officials rallied for a location in close proximity to the University of Rochester. Those cries went unheeded and the most shortsighted conservative approach won.

Our facility was the first CoE to open and will likely be the last one to succeed. As was reported in last week's Rochester Business Journal, the Canandaigua Infotonics Technology Center (the former Center of Excellence), has so far failed to live up to its promises. The Center struggled financially for its first few years, nearly shutting down last summer, and only recently has begun to attract research dollars and spin off new firms. This facility was supposed to create 5,000 jobs over ten years; six years after opening, it has created less than 100. Is there a relation between its far-flung location and its inability to generate jobs or investment? I think so and I am going to prove it as best I can.

Sematech's decision to relocate to Albany is a direct outgrowth of their Center of Excellence, now known as Albany Nanotech. Not only has this facility generated some 2,000 jobs already, but it has led to a commitment for a major AMD "chip fab" facility in the Capital District, generated invaluable press for the Albany area, and now landed the headquarters for Sematech. The Albany Nanotech complex will soon comprise 750,000 square feet of space. Albany's CoE has already met and is now exceeding the goals set in 2001. Was this facility built out in Coxsackie or Ballston Spa? No, this facility was built immediately adjacent to the University at Albany at the heart of the capital region in close proximity to the students, researchers, and visitors that would be using it. Furthermore, it was built in plain sight of both I-87 and I-90, so tens of thousands of commuters can see the great growth that such a facility was bringing to their community (see pictures below). Their buildings were built in 2004 and 2005, with another set to open in 2008. Albany may be the brightest star, but they're not alone in their forward-thinking approach to developing their CoE.

Our friends to the west in Buffalo got it right with their CoE. Despite not coming up with a fun new name (it's still the New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics & Life Sciences), the Buffalo CoE is booming. Had they taken our wise approach, they would have built in Darien, Lockport, or Springville; far from those who would staff or visit it. But Buffalo took the long road, making the smart decision to build on an infill site immediately adjacent to the Roswell Park Cancer Center, Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Center, and Buffalo General Hospital (collectively, it's called the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus, or BNMC). New facilities for Roswell and Hauptman-Woodward were built concurrently with the 400,000 square foot complex that houses the CoE, generating the feeling of a thriving urban environment (see picture below). The BNMC is located adjacent to downtown Buffalo and is convenient to the MetroRail subway, meaning even lower-income folks can get there easily. The Buffalo CoE opened in 2006 and is already credited with directly creating 100 jobs, bringing at least three new companies to Buffalo, and being a beacon of hope in a city long-suffering from economic decline.

Our pals to the east in Syracuse are still early in the process, but if their plans come to fruition, they're poised for great success. The Syracuse CoE, officially called the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental & Energy Systems, is under construction today. While only 60,000 square feet (to start), its design makes a statement many times its size (see picture below). Despite the obvious logic of building this facility in Auburn, Fulton, or Oneida, the Syracuse CoE is being constructed on a former brownfield site adjacent to downtown Syracuse and Syracuse University. An intermodal transportation center will be built at the site as well, increasing the connection between the CoE and the community.

What do all of these other Centers of Excellence have in common? They all built new, they all located in established urban locations, and they all have striking designs. Oh yeah, they are also all highly successful. What is the Rochester area stuck with? Nothing. Even if the Infotonics Center turns a corner and grows some jobs, they'll likely be located out in Canandaigua inducing unwise suburban sprawl and leading to abandonment of the City of Rochester and Monroe County. This is a lesson for us all. The shortest path between two points may not always be the wisest. I can't say for sure that the Infotonics Center would be an unchallenged success had it been built closer to Rochester, but if these other facilities are any proof, we sure as hell missed out on a golden opportunity.

FYI, compare each CoE website if you need further evidence of the Infotonics Center's inferiority: Albany Nanotech, Buffalo CoE, Infotonics, and Syracuse CoE.