Friday, June 01, 2007

Build Now-NY, But Not Here

The Rochester area's economy seems to be slowly but surely getting back on track after a God-awful first half of the decade. For the first time in Lord knows how long, Rochester has been trailing its Upstate neighbors in job growth. I don't mean just Albany, Ithaca, and Syracuse; I mean Binghamton, Buffalo, and Utica too! The only area performing worse than Rochester recently has been Elmira; but that city has been on the fast track to Ghost-towndom for most of the past century (note: i mean no offense to the good people of Elmira and Chemung County, only to those in charge of their sinking ship). The troubles of Upstate NY are well-documented and I have ranted on them before. But sometimes, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Or rather, our local elected officials and their appointed bureaucrats.

The Build Now-NY (BNNY) program has been around for years. According to the Governor's Office of Regulatory Reform: "(BNNY) is a competitive grant program that has been helping local communities grow jobs for years. The program has distributed just over $4 million to help local communities pay for professional services related to engineering studies, environmental assessments, and legal support. The impact has been phenomenal. Since 1999, over 8,750 new or retained jobs have been developed on (BNNY) sites." This is a pre-permitting program, which eases the way for developers to attract businesses to local industrial/commercial parks and sites in the state.

A subset of BNNY is the Shovel Ready Program. Again according to GORR, "Having an economic development site certified as a "Shovel Ready Site" means that the local developer has worked proactively with the State to address all major permitting issues, prior to a business expressing interest in the location. This advance work creates a site where construction can begin rapidly, once a prospective business decides to develop a facility there. By reducing the time it takes a company to begin construction of a new facility, New York State and its local partners are able to provide valuable savings to the business and job opportunities for local residents." Any economic development professional worth a damn will tell you, if you're not shovel ready, you're not competitive in today's fast-moving economy.

I'm not going to get into the semantics of BNNY or the Shovel Ready Program. I will simply sum things up by saying that this is one of the few programs available in this state that helps level the playing field between Upstate NY and our domestic and overseas competition. Given the Rochester area's recent economic struggles, one would assume that our well-paid, politically-appointed economic development gurus are doing everything in their power to ensure that our region is competitive, including having a plethora of BNNY and/or Shovel Ready sites available to prospective employers. Sadly, and not surprisingly, you would be wrong.

A quick perusal of the BNNY/Shovel Ready programs indicates that there is only one BNNY site in Monroe County, the Rochester Technology Park, and it does not have Shovel Ready certification. Beyond that, in the entire nine-county Rochester/Finger Lakes region, there are a total of 14 sites, only one of which is Shovel Ready. What's more infuriating is that, of those 14 sites, nine are located in either Genesee or Livingston counties. Is it any surprise that these two counties have been making waves in attracting employment? Is it just a coincidence that the only Shovel Ready site in the region attracted a major Barilla plant last year? This is a serious shortcoming in our economic development deck of cards and the blame can be wholly placed on our local elected officials who talk a good game, but have absolutely no concept of follow-through.

Just take a look at our friends to the west in Erie County. There are 15 sites, of which nine are Shovel Ready. You read that right; 15 sites in a county of 950,000 and only 1 site in our county of 740,000? Dare I be so bold as to suggest that having such a wide array of sites was key in Erie County landing Geico, Citibank, and other major employers in recent years? The folks out there finally have their act together while we still sit in denial thinking that we're doing just fine. Need more proof? How about the fact that there are seven BNNY/Shovel Ready sites in Onondaga County. The Syracuse area has been leading all Upstate metros for the past few years in job growth; am I crazy to suggest that this could be playing a part? sites in a county of only 460,000 people and we can't muster up two? No wonder we're barely squeaking out job gains when, given our incredible assets, we should still be the jewel of Upstate. Our leaders should be ashamed of themselves.

To be fair, my understanding from anonymous sources is that there are two BNNY/Shovel Ready sites in the works in Monroe County. I won't say where and I won't say who is putting them together (that is confidential information and I don't want to get anyone in trouble), but I will say that the sites are in rural portions of the county. As if we haven't learned anything from all these years of vitality-draining suburban sprawl, we now are going to focus our economic development efforts at further decimating our urban core. This sounds an awful lot like our genius decision to build our Center of Excellence out in Canandaigua. Are we just dumb or is there rhyme and reason to all of this?

I should point out that this pathetic situation is not all the County's fault. Why hasn't the City of Rochester done anything to create Shovel Ready sites at its industrial parks, such as 14621 or the Outer Loop? There are BNNY/Shovel Ready sites in the inner cities of Albany, Buffalo, and Syracuse; why not here? Are we waiting to hit rockbottom before doing something about it? Oh well, at least the City did the smart thing by transferring some Empire Zone acreage to Monroe County to land the CareGuide expansion. Shit, I guess they screwed that one up too. Does anyone else get the feeling that there is no pilot flying this plane?