Citistates Report on the Future of Syracuse

Note:  These are the Citistates newspaper articles as they appeared in the Syracuse Post-Standard during June and July of 2002.  Click Here to download the entire Citistates PDF format report file (22 pages).

Editor's note

The authors of this report lead a metropolitan-consulting group called Citistates. This series presents opinions they formed after visiting and studying our community. Their aim: constructive change.


The Economy:
Choose or Lose Your Direction

June 30, 2002
By Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson

"This is a great place to raise a family." "We have a diverse economy." "If a few more big corporations would only locate here, we'd have all the jobs we need."

Listen to a cross-section of Syracuse area citizens and business leaders, and those attitudes shine through, indeed seem to represent the region's de facto economic strategy. We'd suggest those approaches are not good enough not good enough to assure a competitive 21st century standard of living, to stop spreading poverty, to keep the region's sons and daughters from heading out of town as soon as they have a diploma in hand.

Smart regions, in the today's ferociously competitive global economy, aren't leaving success to chance. They are choosing to be successful, by setting clear goals, mobilizing their resources and staying on task. They're thinking world class. They're rejecting mediocrity.

Clearly, there's nothing wrong with a diversified economy per se. Onondaga County Executive Nicholas Pirro points out, for example, the manufacturing firms that remain, from New Venture Gear to Anheuser-Busch to Bristol Myers Squibb, all continue to invest in cutting-edge equipment and technology. He cites such efforts as the new business park, employing 550 people, created on the site where a departing Allied Chemical left a vast, tainted industrial brownfield. Along with a commitment to workforce upgrading symbolized by the Whitney Applied Technology Center and its Lean Manufacturing Institute.

But a focus on next-generation economies is also critical for any community. In the words of Walter Gretzky: "The key to winning is being first where the puck is going next."

A tall order

The Syracuse region has some big assets. Great institutions of higher education, with their research capacity. A highly-skilled workforce. An active civic culture.

But it's obvious the area faces a passel of tough economic problems. Through most of the '90s, Upstate New York, the Syracuse area included, went through a valley of deep recession. Manufacturing atrophied. New York state's high taxes, regulatory and energy costs took a toll. Heavy outmigration to other regions was registered both among youth and productive middle-aged people even those who indicated that with decent jobs, they would have preferred to stay. A key problem: the brand of intelligence- and information-rich industries bolstering so many American regions registered small progress here.

On top of all that, population levels stagnated regionally and dropped dramatically in Syracuse proper a sure sign, as authors of the Syracuse Community Indicators noted, of "suburban sprawl, devalued housing stock and a diminishing tax base."

In many U.S. regions today, domestic and now especially foreign immigrants are stimulating local economies. But not in Central New York: a survey of the four-county Syracuse area shows 81.5 percent of residents are natives of New York state, indicating little "fresh blood" pouring in.

Concurrently, poverty rates, while still below the national average, have climbed sharply in the region, especially in Syracuse proper. The shabby appearance of many city sections, not to mention crime and street gangs, drag down the image of the entire region. Anemic commercial air service discourages new businesses. Repeatedly in our interviews, we were told of a regional inferiority complex comments such as "We've learned over 20 years that it's OK to be mediocre," or a jolting description of Syracuse proper as "both dull and dangerous."

Sunny side up

The picture isn't all gloomy. Demographers believe the population outflow moderated after 1997. Economic activity picked up, too: the late '90s and 2000 registered record total employment in the region. The area has a modest foothold in modern technology with such firms as Carrier Corp. in East Syracuse, the Syracuse Research Corp. in Cicero, Welch-Allyn in Skaneateles and Lockheed Martin in Salina. In retailing, the Carousel Center has drawn from a broad geographic area; the projected Destiny USA project is predicted to provide even greater stimulus.

But critical hallmarks of success apparent in other U.S. regions today seemed weak or lacking:

Strong, unified leadership

In successful regions from San Diego to Portland, Ore., Jacksonville, Fla., to Seattle, there's a unified coterie of top leaders from business, academia, professional sectors and government, who share a general vision of where the area should be headed and work together to form supporting strategies. San Diego leaders, for example, created a "CONNECT" organization to expose local entrepreneurs to scientific breakthroughs in University of San Diego laboratories resulting in billions of dollars of development. The Trade Alliance of Greater Seattle fosters close personal ties through yearly learning trips of top leaders to other world economic centers, from London to Hong Kong.

We recognize Syracuse has its Economic Growth Council, with members ranging from the Metropolitan Development Association to the Chamber of Commerce, such major employers as Niagara Mohawk and Verizon, university leaders and others. Many look to 20/20 as a strong, civic catalyzing force for the next years. Those alliances, if they had the vigor and broad commitment we see in other, successful places, would neutralize the pessimism that seems so prevalent in the Syracuse region.

And there's another problem: New York state's strong, ingrained political culture can stymie progress. Syracuse area city-county antagonisms have, for example, been barriers in very recent years. Although the current mayor and county executive seem to collaborate well, the moral is that in today's world, progress depends on having a broader leadership mix than the political alone.

Successful regions will also learn to tap citizen creativity. We heard Common Council President Bea Gonzalez comment on the infrequency with which citizens are consulted. We heard a proposal that citizens, both city and county, be brought early into discussions of how visitors to Destiny USA, when it opens, can be induced to return to the area repeatedly and learn to enjoy its many charms, from revitalized downtown sections to picturesque Central New York countryside. It's precisely that kind of outreach that (1) produces smart ideas, and (2) creates a sense of regional citizenship.

A compelling economic strategy

The Syracuse region's strongest specialty, its best chance at being world class, lies in environmental and electrical engineering. That was the judgment in the late '90s of SRI International (the California-based economic development research organization formerly known as the Stanford Research Institute). For the 21st century and the Syracuse area's future, there's a clear translation: innovation in indoor air, its quality, safety, protection, importance for human health.

The vision now has "official" New York state support through the new Center of Excellence in Environmental Systems based at Syracuse University. With $37 million in up-front state investment, the project is expected through private corporate and philanthropic contributions to have close to $170 million in early funding what The Post-Standard has termed an unprecedented public-private partnership for the area. Partners include 11 Central New York universities and research institutions, more than 30 corporations, the MDA and the New York Indoor Environmental Quality Center.

With huge portions of the nation's existing buildings in need of environmental improvements, with such corporations as Carrier already locally based, the potential for research, development and corporate spinoffs is immense.

Yet it will be the quality and long-term commitment of all the area's institutions, plus injections of venture capital, plus strong innovations in local schools and universities to prepare qualified graduates for this new field, that will make all the difference. We heard on one hand that there are now enough electrical engineers in Central New York to constitute one of the largest corporations in the world. But from another source a warning that the region has no more electrical engineers than it could boast six years ago. The message is crystal clear: huge opportunity, but only with vigorous, region-wide follow-through.

Hipness

Strange as it may seem, cultural diversity, a touch of the offbeat, is a hallmark of many U.S. regions doing well economically in our times. Check success towns, from Austin to Boulder, Boston to Seattle, Denver to Chicago, and you find higher-than-average counts of gays and counter-culture "Bohemians." Lots of immigrants. Downtowns with a lively music and arts scenes even tolerance for tattoo parlors.

How could this be? It's because explains Richard Florida of Carnegie Mellon University cultural, ethnic and artistic diversity sends a message to creative people that they'll be welcomed in, find a hospitable climate. It's becoming ever clearer that the successful cities and metro areas of the 21st century will be those that appeal to talented people especially talented youth. The race for factories and big corporations was 20th century stuff; the prize of the future will be success in attracting the kind of smart and creative people, the risk-takers who generate new inventions, patents, marketing and finance plans, entrepreneurial start-ups and world-class products the seedbeds, in short, of 21st century innovation and growth.

Are there seeds of a "hip" or "cool" culture in Syracuse? Yes. A recent editorial in The Post-Standard even listed them: vibrant cultural life based in flagship arts institutions and a lively smorgasbord of community- and ethnic-based art forms. A highly developed civic life in such groups as MDA and the Chamber, 20/20, the Onondaga Citizens League, FOCUS, and neighborhood TNT meetings. A precious architectural heritage in such places as Clinton Square and the towns and villages of Central New York. Armory Square and growing nightlife. Jazz Fest, the "horses" and more.

Welcome mat out?

But is the Syracuse community truly welcoming to talented immigrants or indeed to its own black middle class achievers (whom we heard keep moving away)? Is the Syracuse area more apt to welcome challenging debate or does it, as some allege, typically "marginalize dissent"? Does Syracuse have the robust, recovering inner city neighborhoods of America's comeback cities? Can it claim more than small pockets of night life? An open door to alternative lifestyle people? Community policing that reaches out to poverty-plagued neighborhoods?

In all those issues, we heard heavy doubt. For a strong 21st century economy, more tough choices lie waiting.

2002 The Post-Standard.


 

Closer Ties to Universities and Colleges
Would Benefit Region

July 1, 2002
By Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson

"Here's our city over here," Syracusans tell visitors. Then, pointing eastward to the hill, they add, "Up there is Syracuse University."

The division of town and gown is not unique in Syracuse: It's mirrored in cities coast to coast. Inevitably, one's led to ask: Are the universities the best neighbors they could be? And couldn't more of the brainpower boxed up behind the ivy walls be channeled into the community? Up on its hill, Syracuse University could pass for an unsecured fortress, a community unto itself. Its imposing buildings bear the weight of a grand reputation. Its growing endowment is positioning it for a broad international mission.

Flagship of the fleet

But beyond the historical coincidence of name, what does Syracuse University have to do with Syracuse city, and with the region?

A great deal, it turns out. The university is the flagship of an extraordinary fleet of institutions that make Central New York one of a handful of U.S. regions where higher education institutions constitute the core economic asset.

What SU does in this decade, along with the efforts of the other colleges and universities, may be the single most critical factor in shaping the economy and quality of life of Central New York.

We've already referred to the immense strategic potential of SU's newly announced, state-funded Center for Excellence in Environmental Systems.

Yet as promising as that initiative appears, it's through thousands of contacts, formal and informal, that great universities and colleges make a strong and positive mark in their communities, indeed, fulfill their full missions within American society.

A leadership role

Checking across the United States today, one finds increasing numbers of forward-looking universities engaged in heavy-duty reappraisal of their ties to their host communities.

Research and development is often the key. The University of San Diego is a partner, for example, in a "CONNECT" organization that exposes local entrepreneurs to scientific breakthroughs in its laboratories and has resulted in billions of dollars of development.

But R&D isn't the whole story. Increasingly, university leaders are taking on prime roles of civic leadership. At a recent San Diego briefing, we were amazed to find the leader with the most intimate grasp of a broad range of regional economic development activities was, conspicuously, the chancellor of the University of California at San Diego, Robert Dynes.

But there are problem areas. One concern is the impact of universities' physical expansion on nearby neighborhoods clearly an issue in Syracuse, where the university has aggressively added territory, for buildings and parking lots, in recent decades. Historically, universities have thought little about the social and economic impacts of their expansions on the vulnerable, low-income communities adjacent to their campuses.

Island mentality

A second issue is how universities can be more engaged in tackling the severe societal problems evident at their very doorsteps. The concern, in the words of the University of Pennsylvania's Ira Harkavy, is that privileged universities become stranded "islands of affluence in seas of poverty, oases in deserts of despair." That, he insists, risks betrayal of the optimistic missions of universities in early America not simply to advance learning, but to train youth for citizenship, creating a new and better society.

Harkavy was able to get Penn and not just undergraduates, but an array of professors, instructors and graduate students - involved in outreach to some of West Philadelphia's most ravaged neighborhoods and troubled schools. They became personally engaged in inventing courses and programs, in guest teaching, in getting inner-city children to open their minds to the idea of service to their own communities.

We heard that SU is moving in this direction, getting students involved through a Center for Community and Public Service. We were also briefed on a very active Urban Ministry Project.

We did, though hear skepticism about how many faculty see such activities as worthy of their attention, worthwhile expenditures of their time. As one local critic told us, many faculty "might as well be working in East Cupcake, Ill., for all the attention they pay."

The remark recalled a story Harkavy told us, relating how he recruited a famed University of Pennsylvania anthropologist by first maneuvering him to the windows of the faculty club to look out on the West Philadelphia scene. Harkavy's words to this professor, who routinely flew off to such remote places as Central America to collect neighborhood-based data on nutritional deficiencies: "I need you in my village." To his surprise, Harkavy found his audacity rewarded as the professor agreed to take his research into the neighborhood next to the university.

Soon the anthropologist's graduate students were not only doing research in nearby blocks, but were contacting parents of children, volunteering on weekends to go door-to-door and help families change their dietary habits.

The University of Pennsylvania is only one of several universities that have pioneered outreach partnerships in recent years. Yale; Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.; the University of Southern California in Los Angeles; and Howard in Washington are among those that have made especially impressive strides.

Columbia University, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, has registered one of the most remarkable turnarounds. Its land-aggrandizing tactics of the '60s were so egregious they sparked mass protests including arrests. By contrast, Columbia in the '90s, under President George Rupp, not only talked the talk of better community relations but appointed permanent high-level staff to work closely with its neighbors in Harlem and other nearby communities.

Columbia also developed programs to increase its employment of nearby neighborhood residents. Through networking, it's raised purchases from local vendors past $60 million yearly. The university counsels local small businesses with teams of MBA students. An urban technical improvement program has helped community-based groups capture over $100 million in development. And in dramatic contrast to the years of confrontation, Columbia now regularly presents capital plans for feedback at community board meetings.

Moving ahead

There are steps in the same direction: SU, for example, gets due credit for its 11-year record with the Neighborhood Improvement Program, assisting in making homeownership a reality for more residents. But the Columbia model suggests unexplored ways to work intimately with neighboring communities.

The 21st century potentials for America's urban universities may expand from service to unusual new opportunities, insists Eugene Trani, president of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Students, he predicts, will go overwhelmingly for college experience in lively cities. Isolated campuses with six big football games a year won't cut it; 24-hour-a-day towns will. Smart universities must bolster urban revitalization and variety, as Virginia Commonwealth did through investments to bring retail and private housing to the distressed Broad Street area the university abuts.

And the most successful universities, Trani suggests, will learn to carry education outside the classroom. In Virginia Commonwealth's case, he suggests, that will mean the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Virginia General Assembly, Theater Virginia, the Virginia Ballet and the Richmond public schools. "The experience must be dramatically enriched for students, both in terms of educational experience and research opportunities," says Trani.

One's impelled to wonder: What if SU and its nearby partner colleges thought that expansively about their role in the city and region in future years? It's exciting to think of the multiple, complementary roles: universities in their R&D roles, as collaborative land developers, as employers, as researchers and helpers in addressing social problems, and as users and stimulators of local cultural opportunities.

In a university town like Syracuse, the opportunity scenario could be exceedingly rich.

2002 The Post-Standard.


 

Leaders Must Protect the Culture
of Small Towns and Rural Life

 

July 02, 2002
By Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson

Is the Syracuse region a sufficiently "livable," attractive place for 21st-century standards? Will it be able to attract and hold the professionals and skilled workers who can pick anywhere they like in the U.S. to shape their careers and personal lives?

We found people of two minds on that question.

As visitors, one gets a fast earful about short commutes from still quaint suburban towns, raves about close-by lakes and the region's cornucopia of cultural opportunities. And there's wonderful pride in Clinton Square, Armory Square, the splendid public parks and other charms of the city proper.

But there's a dark side. Some parts of Syracuse are clearly not charming. Some neighborhoods on the South Side seem heavy with adults unemployed and youth out-of-control. A new Family Dollar store will not turn this condition around. Guns and gangs make big headlines and a bad reputation for the whole community.

So what needs to be done to create a Syracuse region that can be sure of attracting talented young professionals and holding its newly footloose baby boomers?

This newspaper ran a fine series back in March 2000 on why so many leave and where they end up. The simple reason so many young people leave, it turns out, is that's what young people do. They search for new places, new adventure, hunger to experience a larger city than Syracuse.

SU spring graduate Scott Adams is one of those, though he confesses that when he came to Syracuse, it ''seemed like a big city. I spent the first night looking out the window, amazed by the light of the city.''

Yet the youth who choose public colleges in the area do tend to stay when they graduate. Because Syracuse University appeals to an international market, only about 10 percent stay somewhere in the region after graduating, though about half, according to career counseling staff, do remain in New York state.

Counselors report that the students who do get off campus into some Syracuse-area employment setting, through co-op or internships, register more enthusiasm for staying if they can find suitable work. Just staying over a summer or two seems to shift attitudes. Susan Hildebrand, a recent graduate who grew up in Mechanicsburg, Pa., recalls two summers, ''going downtown a lot, mixing with Syracuse people.'' She found the experience ''fun, relaxing,'' and not at all like the talk of ''people approached with sawed-off shotguns,'' which she'd heard on campus.

Students generally told us that career aspirations, real job offers included, were taking them to other cities after graduation. It's an observation that leads us to make an even stronger pitch for the importance of the Syracuse area developing more home-grown industries.

Build great communities

But there's a companion strategy that makes the day for some regions building truly great communities where talented people will want to live.

It used to be that any good place to work was considered a good place to live. No more. These days, only good places to live are seen as good places to work.

So, what could Syracuse and its surrounding communities do to earn this much sought-after reputation?

First, protect as vigorously as possible the culture of small towns and rural life.

Both seem under siege today as sprawling subdivisions spread out over hills and farms. Just consider why this region's collection of villages with real town centers and vibrant neighborhoods is itself a tourist attraction. Places such as Skaneateles, Manlius or Camillus don't need promotional signs saying ''great place to live.'' The message lies in everything a visitor sees.

So agenda number one should be to protect this asset, and not allow it to be eroded by converting even more dairy farms to faceless, standard development.

Onondaga County actually has a plan for ensuring that new growth is not only good quality but oriented to strengthening communities. The county's recent settlement plan was born with assistance from famed New Urbanist architect Andres Duany. It's now being ''translated'' from philosophy and pictures to an enforceable code.

But the idea's simple enough. Preserve the rural character of the countryside. Build real neighborhoods around town centers. Mix housing and shops and offices close together. Whether in small cities or hamlets, or even urban Syracuse, it's the ''DNA'' of the place that matters. That's what Armory Square has in common with Skaneateles they are both true to a DNA for livability, and that makes them destinations.

County taking a lead

Most places in America, it's the counties that don't seem to care, that give away land like more of it can be manufactured. We find it remarkable that Onondaga County is taking the lead to preserve a core asset of the region.

The themes of the settlement plan show up already in the Fayetteville Mall makeover, in the new housing such as Ann's Grove in Camillus, and the village concept in north Cicero. Still, the temptation to sacrifice precious heritage for one shiny new Rite Aid store will not go away. Political resolve will be critical. Pride about great places will likely prove more powerful than any rule of law.

Second, apply the same rigorous standard to Syracuse itself.

Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll told us that while he would change a few things in the Duany recommendations, and he knows it's the county's plan, he liked it. That is no surprise. The plan institutionalizes the very kind of community planning that produced Syracuse's most desirable neighborhoods.

A recent visitor to your region, the father of a local developer, looked around the city and volunteered that ''out in Denver we're trying to build new what you already have here.'' These neighborhoods are the ''small towns'' of the city. Every decision made and dollar spent ought to be measured for its impact on making neighborhoods better places. The place to start: understand that ''cleaner'' spells ''safer'' in the eyes of most citizens.

Some South Side neighborhoods look neither clean nor safe. Not only is this condition a continuing tragedy, it is the source of most of the talk on the SU campus that trashes the city. Students talk about Syracuse as a ''divided city ... where there are many affluent areas and also poor, dangerous feeling places.''

Empty houses everywhere

SU student Nick Serrano grew up in northern Virginia, and after graduation is headed for a job in Kansas City. Serrano says, ''Back home a vacant house would make people upset they'd do something. Here you see empty places everywhere.''

In our interviews we heard optimism from neighborhood representatives, who were encouraged by the team of leaders now in place for schools and police. Leaders are necessary and laying better plans is a good step. But what this scene desperately needs is evidence of action progress, real and visible.

Third, get more out of Destiny than achieving a large scale retail and entertainment complex.

What most communities do, especially if they feel down on themselves, is try to shoot the moon, go for broke, fire the silver bullet. Some say that Destiny is squarely in that ''silver-bullet'' mentality. We agree, it might be. But it doesn't have to be.

Destiny, as explained rather carefully to us by Robert Congel of Pyramid Management Group, could be a major catalyst, succeeding in raising the region's visibility and increasing its visitor count, while ensuring that downtown and the nearby neighborhoods are also winners.

Pick up one of the Destiny USA books at the Pyramid offices. One very prominent page is called ''Creekwalk.'' Pictured there is a promenade along the creek that runs from the Inner Harbor through downtown, with a seamless row of lower-rise buildings reminiscent of a scene near the Rialto bridge in Venice. Congel talks about this feature of the project as the ''connection to Armory Square.''

Restore Onondaga Creek

Cleaning up this creek, today an eyesore and largely blocked off from public use, is critical, though not merely to make the connection between the Destiny zone and downtown. As our colleague Peter Katz put it when we visited in May, ''Don't confuse connectivity with proximity.'' In other words, it is what you build along the creek that matters as much as achieving the connection. It is the urban experience one feels walking through the area. Just imagine this corridor filling up with small shops and offices, places to learn computers or another language or take a music lesson, apartments, lofts, and condos, and great restaurants.

Sound a lot like Armory Square? Yes, that's the point. At least one pioneer developer, Robert Doucette, is already providing Syracuse with the very thing that people flock to. The apartments in the Loew's Theater building are great urban spaces. Check out the Lemon Grass at night plenty of boomers in there. We found young people filling the evening sidewalks, on deck in the outdoor bars and restaurants. The closest thing to a city-streets traffic jam seems to happen because people are looking for a good Armory Square parking place.

We heard that the city was making building restorations and conversions easier to do. If the city and Pyramid can work together on planning and zoning, on resource-building, this is possibly the most strategic step either could take to make Destiny more than just a retail-entertainment draw. The success of Franklin Square shows the great potential for converting old urban buildings into 21st-century spaces. Rather than creating a second downtown space to compete with the first, Destiny and the city could register an immense breakthrough: expanding the quality living and working space of a historic city center.

Monorail possible

Indeed, if the city and Pyramid jointly show they are serious about this corridor, the case for state and federal support to build the proposed monorail will be greatly enhanced. Offering visitors a way to get from the airport to Destiny to downtown and to SU without fighting the traffic will prove to be worth every penny. Particularly if it's built with outside funding.

Funding of course remains a big question. More than one person whispered skepticism in our ears over Pyramid's intentions and what part of this enormously ambitious project gets paid for by the public. One still hears serious grumbling about the state-county-city financial accords already reached with Pyramid for the new project.

But what we heard, directly from Congel and his spokesman, Michael Lorenz, was a pretty clear commitment to see this project through with high quality, to establish a lasting legacy in which all the community can take pride. If they follow through, with directness and generous spirit, they'll be able to escape most of the nightmares of political wrangling, petty petitions and paralyzing disagreements that so easily thwart development projects.

The community, for its part, then needs to be clear on the vision, insist on clear bookkeeping and accountability where the public dollars are involved, and remain a working partner in the execution.

That partnership should extend also to the North Salina neighborhood, so close to Destiny that it cannot go unaffected by its development. North Salina still functions like a real neighborhood. The urban fabric, not pretty in places, is intact. There are real jobs there, block after block, and homes people are trying to take care of.

Now, fast forward to a successful Destiny, with traffic counts soaring as an index of commercial success. Where do the visitors stay? Where do they eat?

Utilize style of North Side

Here's what happens if there is not a plan to stop it: a typical strip of Taco Bells and Burger Kings, laced with a line-up of Hampton Inns and Motel 6s. Each one an island of bedrooms surrounded by a sea of tarmac. This scene would suck the life out of the North Salina district, leaving yet another soulless commercial strip.

There is an alternative. Plenty of hotel space and all the food anyone could need can be built into the structure and style of the historic Salina neighborhood. But not without committing a complex, intentional act. Not without a commitment of the city to work with Pyramid and with representatives of the Salina neighborhood to design this capacity, to specify how it looks and works, where the buildings go and where the cars park.

Then you can put out the welcome mat. And give Destiny credit for getting on more than one map: one for its commercial clout. And another for helping to build an even greater community.

2002 The Post-Standard.


 

Syracuse, Its Surrounding Community
Need to Communicate

July 03, 2002
By Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson

Recession, Sunbelt growth, partisan politics, the fuzzy authority created by New York State's Byzantine networks of municipalities, districts and authorities they've all been bad news for Syracuse and Central New York in recent years.

And while there's much focus on the city of Syracuse proper, it's well to remember it actually constitutes only 33 percent of the population of Onondaga County, and an even smaller percentage of the four-county area Oswego, Cayuga, Onondaga, Madison of which it is a part. Syracuse may seem the "capital" of this Central New York region, but its dominance has eroded steadily.

Nor is it any secret that Upstate New York as a whole suffered the worst economic fortunes of any American region - save perhaps the Central Valley of California - for most of the 1990s.

To an outsider's eye, the governmental divisions of Upstate New York seem especially problematic. Too often, the politics has tended to be narrow, partisan, unforgiving. Home rule is such absolute gospel that communities rarely collaborate. In the cities, municipal unions often dominate, just as job-protective political leaders tend to dominate in suburban towns. Every town and village has to have its own cops, clerks, firefighters, auditors, assessors, councils and executives. Sprawling suburban growth saps older cities of their population and tax bases, harming urban minorities perhaps the most severely. New York State local property taxes are more than double the national average, fueled heavily by state mandates and regulations. Your corporations complain bitterly about the taxes they must pay, the regulations they must obey.

Economic compacts work

In earlier times, people advocated metropolitan government as a cure for those problems. Even today, some elements of shared authority may be necessary. Metropolitan governance has in fact advanced in such areas as the Minnesota Twin Cities and Portland, Ore.

Though we've noted that across the country, progressive regions are mostly seeking to walk around the political divisions and find accords on other layers. Regional economic compacts focused on identifying promising industrial sectors, on workforce preparedness and other collaboration have flowered. Major corporations have agreed to be partners: in Chicago, they even work with environmentalists, neighborhood leaders and organized labor in a "Metropolis 2020" organization focused on more economical, sensible growth patterns for "Chicagoland." In Denver there's agreement among the region's numerous city and county economic development agencies to share all industrial prospect leads.

Business-led coalitions in California's Silicon Valley focus on public transportation and affordable housing breakthroughs. In fact, the leadership groups of regions across California now meet regularly to compare notes and a state Speaker's Commission on Regionalism just reported in last spring. In South Florida, normally discordant local governments are now getting together to form a more rational, sustainable transportation plan for their long, narrow, people-packed strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Everglades. Across the country, regional coalitions are focusing on "smart growth" initiatives to curb wasteful sprawl development. Equity issues, including more region-wide work opportunities for minority and low-income cities and older suburbs, are being widely discussed.

Behind the times

Up to now, Upstate New York has appeared a laggard, well behind the times in forming such alliances. Even California's poverty-plagued Central Valley has a Great Valley Center that pushes discussions and accords across a territory actually more than 450 miles in length.

Perhaps the new indoor air initiative the state-supported Center of Excellence in Environmental Systems and the potential of a Syracuse-to-Cornell university corridor focused on related computer and applied software engineering will prove a breakthrough in Upstate regionalism. Opportunity has a way of bringing people to a table easier than any sharing of burdens.

But the region has to be much more simply because the decision pressures on it will rise. Imagine, for example, that the Destiny project brings the economic growth to Central New York that its sponsors project. In one sense, that's great. But it also could mean huge growth pressures a deluge of gas stations, pizza parlors and Taco Bells and other roadside clutter, besmirching the very countryside and lakesides of Upstate New York the Destiny folks say they want to help popularize to the American nation.

We believe the region needs some serious discussions about such perils well before they engulf the area. In addition to elected officials, it's critical major businesses be involved: indeed their presence at the table is indispensable for direct and frank talk, and getting by parochial issues of who controls each land use decision or sign permit. Additionally, we'd suggest, your university and college presidents need to be involved too, as major stakeholders for your regional future.

Look beyond the area

Beyond Syracuse's own Central New York area, we'd make sure government and business folks from the other Central New York tables were included. Interesting efforts at regional cohesion are currently underway in the Buffalo and Rochester regions, including discussion of about actual city-county consolidations. We'd doubt your region wants to go that far in the near future. But the issues of regional efficiency, workforce preparedness, land use, protection of the natural environment and dealing effectively with the state government, will be bypassed and left in great measure to sheer chance unless the Syracuse area engages in direct dialogue with those sister regions.

If Syracuse and Central New York are serious about being a world-class, significant region in the 21st century, at least getting into serious dialogue with its regional partners is an absolute minimum.

Operationally, one might simplify the task by getting a respected, bipartisan, insightful group to pull the parties together for a forum of Central New York leadership. Maybe your 20/20 organization can fill that bill. But the critical point is simple: don't just be a victim of the swirling economic and political tides of this new century. Look, think, debate about your future. Think and act regionally. Be prepared for change. The times will absolutely demand it.

2002 The Post-Standard.