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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Why Wait Around for the Connective Corridor?

First, while we've been critical of in the past, let me give credit where credit is due. The website has added a new feature on the right side of the main page, called "Proposed City Development", grouping related articles and forum links together. The newspaper has done a fairly decent job, particularly in recent months, in covering the development scene, so it's nice to see the website putting these stories in a more prominent place.

To that end, one of the articles listed under said banner is Friday's P-S on a guy named Rick Destitio, who owns the old Brown-Lipe Gear building on the corner of S. Geddes and W. Fayette Sts ["A" on the map below]. Destitio is transforming the building into an artists' colony, but his vision is bigger than that. He sees his building and the the thriving Devlan Art Gallery ["B"], across the way from SU's Warehouse building near Armory Square, as the bookends of a new "Warehouse District".

Destitio, not content to wait for the powers-that-be to ratify his idea, has already posted a couple handmade signs on telephone poles naming this strip "The Warehouse District". Good for him - that's the entrepreneurial spirit that is going to make Syracuse's rebirth happen. Let our civic leaders debate appropriations, tax agreements, and development strategies. Guys and gals like Destitio are making things happen.

I gotta admit, I'm kind of a philistine when it comes to art, at least of the modern variety that I suspect prevails at Devlan and the neighboring Redhouse. I'll take the Sistine Chapel - or Norman Rockwell - any day. But when it comes to redevelopment, to making urban areas livable again, artists often act as the avant-garde, paving the way for further commercial and residential development (GreenwichVillage is the exemplar par excellence for this). Today, young professionals want to live near places like Thayer St. in Providence, South St. in Philly, and Adams-Morgan and the U Street Corridor in DC, because these areas are hip, funky, fun, etc.

This may not not appeal to everyone as the path to development. For example, the "Towne Center crowd" might want to focus more heavily on Syracuse becoming, say, the Silicon Valley of environmental engineering, and damn the tree-hugging hippies with their psychedelic paintings and beat poetry. Don't get me wrong - I fall more closely in this camp myself. But the reality is, we need to pursue both traditional and more creative options to re-energizing the city.

Artists bring life to a city. A Warehouse District, created organically and authentically, could connect the exploding development in Armory Square to the Near West Side, complement the Connective Corridor, and herald the day when the entire city is knitted together by colorful and vibrant neighborhoods - north, south, east, and west.

Keep it up, Mr. Destitio. Good work.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Save Wilson/ Adapt CNY New Years Eve

I'm back from the dead after my busy season and should be back to regular posting pretty quickly.

I attended the Save Wilson/ Adapt CNY New Years Eve bash at the Hotel Syracuse on Sunday night. The event was held in the Ballroom and Lobby of the soon to be refurbished Hotel Syracuse. The event turned out to be spectacular. The theme was the 20's and a good half of the attendees dressed for the occasion. Not to make this sound like the social notebook but the event was a smashing success at least from a party standpoint. I am unsure how much money was actually raised between the ticket sales and silent auction but from the attendance it looked to be quite a success. The silent auction offered one really unique piece which was a slice of the wall with some original graffiti on it (I unfortunately lost the bidding on this) as well as some wine, a biplane ride, and some other great items. The event also featured a running slide show of the progress of the Wilson building so far and lists of names of who has helped out on the project. Overall, if nothing else, the event got the Wilson Building Project out on the forefront of people's minds. I really hope this becomes an annual event and not just a one time thing. I will be first in line next year when/if tickets go on sale.

UPDATE: I don't know the profits but the gate for the event was: $25,000.00 for tickets and $5750.00 for Silent Auction

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Drinking for Jobs at Dorsey's

Back in DC after a relaxing week at home in the 'Cuse.

First up, thoughts on the MDA's Come Home to Syracuse event held last Thursday evening at P.J. Dorsey's in Armory Square. The pitch of the event was to bring together former residents of Syracuse visiting for the holidays, with local employers, in a casual setting. The MDA was expecting representatives from around 30 local firms, including Upstate, Lockheed, Anaren Microwave, Clear Channel, O'Brien & Gere, CPS & more. Reps from the MDA, the Manufacturers' Association (MACNY) and the Chamber of Commerce were also on hand.

I planned on attending to do a little networking, but I ended up "volunteering" and working as a greeter at the front door. Let me say this - the place was PACKED. Between 5 and 8, I'd say at least 300 people stopped by for a drink and some chatting. It was a varied crowd, some dressed in jeans, others in business suits. While a good many were definitely locals, there were quite a few out-of-towners, the demographic the organizers were hoping to attract. Most of the crowd was young, 20s and 30s, and several appeared to be students from the Hill or the Heights. There was a large stack of resumes in the drop box at the end of the night, and I'm sure that at least a few of the networkers landed themselves an interview.

There were a couple disappointments. Reps from Upstate and OB&G failed to show up, leaving a lot of people frustrated. The room was also a little too small, making things slightly chaotic. And doing the event a little closer to a holiday (maybe the Friday after Thanksgiving?) could draw a bigger out of town crowd. But these are small potatoes.

A couple great stories. I talked with a guy who grew up in the 'Cuse, but moved to Atlanta for work, where he lived for six and a half years. He found the MDA's EssentialNYJobs site, found a job, and moved back home. He showed up at the event just to say "what's up" and share his story. Pretty cool. Another couple from Maryland was home for the holidays, and the Mrs. said she was determined to raise their family in CNY. She and her husband (who, it must be said, was slightly less enthusiastic)were networking for jobs to let them move back home, without taking a cut in their standard of living.

The MDA says there are, at any given time, 8,000 professional jobs listed in their online database. A couple of my high school friends who attended the event seemed a little skeptical of the MDA's definition of "professional", but there is no doubt that medical, biotech, engineering, accounting, and legal positions are available, and according to some employers, they can't hire fast enough. I think the problem is, however, that the college age demographic that Syracuse is trying to retain, is not educated or trained for the right jobs.

Most of my friends, like myself, have BAs and MAs in the liberal arts, while local employers need people with science, technical, and business training. High schools need to emphasize that with a couple years of technical training at OCC or elsewhere, young people can land good-paying jobs here at home. For those destined for 4 year institutions, business (finance and accounting), engineering (particularly environmental), hard sciences (biology and chemistry) should be the majors of choice. I'm all for a well-rounded liberal education, but the jobs in the 'Cuse for English and political science majors are few and far between. Our schools need to do a better job of conveying to high school students which fields of study are most likely to make a graduate employable.

The re-opening of Central Tech by the city school district is definitely a step in the right direction. We need more creative, long-term thinking like this to ensure that our citizens can maximize their educational opportunities, and our employers can draw on a population with the right skill set.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Live from Syracuse, It's Salted City

Home in the 'Cuse for a weeklong Christmas vacation. Tonight, you can find me here, at the MDA's Come Home to Syracuse event at Dorsey's in Armory Square, from 5-7:30 pm. A free drink, and networking with 30 local white collar employers with over 100 available jobs, from what I hear. I'll post a recap later this evening.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Hugging Trees for Fun and Profit

SUNY ESF has won a $10 million state grant towards building a commercial cellulosic ethanol facility, up north in Lewis County. Another $10 million for the facility will be provided by Catalyst Renewables Corp., New Energy Capital Corp., and O’Brien & Gere.

Basically, these guys are going to make fuel from wood chips and try to sell it.

Awesome. Yet another example of renewable energy / environmental technology growth in CNY. The more stories we read like this, the more the momentum grows for the ‘Cuse becoming the Silicon Valley of environmental technologies. It could happen. And it would do a heck of a lot more for our community (and our country) than some other economic development schemes out there (cough, cough).

In other news, Some setbacks on the construction of the Center for Excellence on the site of the old Midtown Plaza. Seems the construction crews struck gold – black gold – and the state DEC has to come in and clean-up. That’s right, construction of a center for environmental and energy technology is being delayed by environmental contamination – caused by oil. Bummer. Building might not be completed until mid-2008 now…

Thursday, December 14, 2006

What's a Few Million Between Friends?

So last spring, Mayor Driscoll signed a city ordinance to bill the Syracuse Industrial Development Agency $2.9 million for the work city employees did on various elements of Congel's Ditch. Now, Driscoll has changed his mind, and does not plan on asking SIDA to reimburse the city for these services. It seems the $2.9 million number was chosen by the Common Council because it just so happened to be the projected budget shortfall for the 'Cuse at the time. While the city ended up not needing the cash this year, it probably will in the next two years, and the Common Council is annoyed that Driscoll is no longer interested in getting it.

This is one of those situations in which one wants to get vehemently annoyed and pick a side, but it's just so confusing to know what to get mad about. On first glance, it seems a tad inappropriate for the Council to suggest making up budget shortfalls by essentially taking tribute from other entities, in dollar amounts that have no relationship to actual services rendered. Buuuut, on the other hand, if SIDA is not an independent entity, but actually an agency that falls under the authority of the city, particularly the city's fiscal authority, shifting funds from one department to another as needed is just common sense.

So what exactly is SIDA, and what is its relationship with the city? The mayor, according to the article, appoints its board, currently chaired by MDA head Erwin Davis, with top Driscoll official Kenneth Mokrzycki also serving as a board member. SIDA is a public non-profit corporation, with some decidely governmental powers, including granting tax exemptions and negotiating PILOT agreements. I don't think the Salvation Army or even the Red Cross can do that

Now of course, I'm being somewhat deliberately obtuse, as the economic development corporation is a pretty standard arrangement in cities across the U.S. But I think this disagreement neatly illustrates some of the problems inherent in government involvement in local development. As a non-profit public corporation, my guess is SIDA's charter empowers it to act independently on behalf of the city's economic development. Technically speaking then, the Common Council treating this organization like it was a $20 bill the Council just found in its collective coat is an abuse of its purpose. On the other hand, when quasi-governmental entities are created, they occupy a precarious position. If it has governmental powers, it should be under the authority of the local government, including fiscally.

It's quite possible I'm misunderstanding some key element of this debate, but what I think my point ultimately is, is this. There needs to be clear delineations between government and private entities. Zoning, basic services, police protection, taxes, etc., these are the functions of government. Indirectly, the city's attitude towards these things can have a powerful impact on development.

But things get awfully sticky when governments get involved in this particular development project or that one. Government should set the rules of the game, and make sure they are enforced, but then leave the real magic up to private firms (who shouldn't expect, or rely on, government financing or special treatment)...thus my libertarian leanings are betrayed. But I'm interested if anyone can shed more light on this matter.