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Can we think big?

Urban journal



If Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse worked together as a region, could we get the growth --- new companies, new jobs, new people --- that's eluding us?

                  Maybe. We'd certainly have a better chance than if we keep working separately. But boy, do we have a long way to go.

                  Working together as a region was the focus of last week's well-publicized gathering called "The Power of Three." The event, organized by the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation, was taped by WXXI, and was telecast here, in Buffalo, and in Syracuse. Among P3's 11 sponsors were prominent local businesses such as Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, Farash, Nixon Peabody law firm, and RG&E.

                  The audience of more than 600 included a good many people from businesses and universities. And the speakers were key people from each region: Mayors Bill Johnson of Rochester, Anthony Masiello of Buffalo, and Matthew Driscoll of Syracuse, and economic-development officials from the three cities --- Michael Finney of the Greater Rochester Enterprise, Thomas Kucharski of the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, and Irwin Davis of the Metropolitan Development Association of Syracuse and Central New York.

                  There was a lot of talk about the region's strengths: a combined population of more than 3 million, $8.15 billion a year in exports, more than 5 million visitors each year, 65 colleges and universities, employers that include major manufacturing companies and new high-tech firms. If we catalog all of those strengths and market them, the speakers said, the region could be a real powerhouse.

                  A two-hour public forum like P3 isn't where real progress will occur, of course. The mayors and economic-development leaders promised that the P3 conference was just a start, that they'll get together again and get things going.

                  Still, boosting jobs and population won't be easy. Enthusiasm and the promise to work together won't be enough. And it'll certainly require more than a good marketing campaign.

                  Rochester's Michael Finney cut to a core problem: You can waste lots of money on marketing if you don't know what you're doing --- and if you don't have the right "product." At the moment, Finney said, the region doesn't have a strong entrepreneurial climate. It doesn't have a strong venture-capital community. We don't have enough jobs for the young people we want to keep here.

                  There are 44,000 economic-development organizations in the United States, added Buffalo's Kucharski --- competing for fewer than 500 big projects. "Your odds," he said, "are not very good."

                  Finney and Kucharski are right. And gushing about how great it is to live in Upstate New York ---- how inexpensive the housing is, how great the arts are, how easy it is to get from home to work --- won't do the trick.

                  And while local efforts in such areas as biotech could bring new business and new jobs to the region, Upstate isn't the only area of the country doing that kind of work.

                  We need a strong vision, a sense of where we want to go, and why, and what it will take to get there. We also need the will to get there --- and we need to stop doing things the way we've always done them.

                  And we do indeed need to think regionally. Even that won't be easy: We can't even manage to think of ourselves as a single community at a very local level. Rochester and its suburbs compete with each other for new development, often offering tax breaks to convince a business to simply move from one town to another.

                  If you suggest that we plan our development together, though, some elected officials start screaming that people's rights are threatened.

                  Republican County Exec candidate Maggie Brooks, like her mentors Jack Doyle and Steve Minarik, dismisses regionalism. Calling for regional solutions to our problems, she told the D&C last week, "is an admission of a failure to find real answers."

                  Yes indeedy. If we've found real answers with our parochial approach, I'd like to see them.

                  Simply embracing the concept of "regionalism" won't be enough. But embracing that concept will have to be the foundation of other economic-development efforts --- because that's what more competitive regions are doing.

                  Maybe we're happy with the way we are. Maybe we don't want new jobs and a stronger economy. But if we do, we'll have to admit something: If we keep doing the same things in the same way, we'll keep getting the same result.

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