Saturday, February 13, 2010

The End of the Double O's, the Decade of Broken Promises

The New Millenium dawned in Utica with hopeful anticipation. The city had not looked as good in years, with new landscaping in the parks, along the Parkway, on Genesee Street, and around City Hall. The City Center building had tenants on the ground floor, including a place to eat. Boarded up anchors of Downtown, the Adirondack Bank Building and the Hotel Utica, were going to be renovated and reopened. A marina facility was going to be constructed along the canal in North Utica, and a new recreation center and ski chalet were to be constructed at the Parkway. New Hartford had just completed plans for a Town operated business park that was going to provide sites for manufacturing -- meeting a regional need because space for such in Utica was limited.

A redevelopment plan was released in 2001 for Harbor Point and Utica's waterfront area. Late 2001 saw announcement of the "Center for Brownfield Studies" to be created by a consortium of Niagara Mohawk and several local colleges. A physical presence for the new institution was promised for the Harbor Point and downtown areas.

After much public controversy, a site in Marcy was announced as "shovel ready" for a computer chip fabrication plant, part of a series of such sites planned by New York State to position itself as a global center of high technology. The Marcy site was expected to eventually draw a "chip-fab" that would create hundreds of well-paying jobs and inject millions of dollars into the local economy.

In the early '00s a new highway was in the works to connect Route 8 south of Utica to Judd Road. It was expected to relieve traffic congestion in New York Mills, provide easier access from Utica and New Hartford to the Oneida County Airport in Whitestown, and to grow jobs at its Industrial Park.

The early '00s also saw the Upper Mohawk Valley Regional Water Board's decision to rid itself of what was considered an unnecessary asset, the Gray Dam. The Board decided that it was more cost effective to destroy the dam than to spend money to repair it. Additionally, in carrying out its perceived mission to supply water to those who wanted it, it entered into an agreement to supply water to the Town of Verona and the Turning Stone Casino.

Things were looking up for the Utica City School District in the early '00s with "The Millenium Project," a $37 million remake of Proctor High School into four smaller "schools within a school," each with its own career theme and staff. The smaller school configuration was expected to bring a "more personalized" education experience to the students. "Links" would be forged between the schools and the business community, with "job shadowing" opportunities expected to lead to jobs waiting for the students upon graduation. Utica schools also were implementing the "Safe Schools/Healthy Students Intiative," intended to improve the safety and health of students.

September, 2002, brought the launch of the "Griffiss Institute for Information Assurance" that was going to "establish Rome as a national center of research and economic development in the field of information security—bringing new high-tech jobs and private sector investment to the Mohawk Valley," according to the then-governor.

However, before the early '00s were over, there were signs that things were not living up to their promise. With little public notice or opportunity for input, the early '00s saw open spaces in Utica parks carved up by fences and populated by ugly concrete dugouts, turned into dedicated ball fields for certain groups. Parts of Proctor Park and the Parkway ski hill became dumps for broken concrete and pavement, which were covered over with soil and grass that changed the landscape. The “Safe Schools” program was implemented using public funds but controlled by a private corporation formed after a series of closed-door executive sessions by the Utica School Board. The program used the school system to collect data about students and their families in order to target “services” to them by “partnering” not-for-profit agencies. The "Center for Brownfield Studies," although it at one point claimed that it had 100 students who were already studying at various institutions, it was, itself, nowhere to be found. Both the new marina facility and Parkway center cost much more than originally anticipated, and the facilities constructed were inadequate for some of their announced uses. Additionally, a HUD audit found both projects to have missed their job-creation targets and misspent federal monies. The Marcy "shovel-ready chip-fab" site drew no interest while, at the same time, a site near Albany that was still on the drawing board and had (at that time) an inadequate water supply attracted visitors from several companies. It was about this time that EDGE placed on hold its application for an Army Core of Engineers wetlands permit -- a prerequisite to any construction on the Marcy site. Also about this time the Oneida County Airport, after having air service for decades and having hosted the headquarters of two regional airlines, lost all scheduled passenger service.

The mid-'00s brought evidence that earlier initiatives were not living up to their hype, but, also, more promises of improvements. The anticipated crossroads of what is now route 840 with Commercial Drive attracted "big-box" retail development to New Hartford and brought with it a lot of traffic congestion. This also shifted the center of regional retail transactions out of Utica and into New Hartford. Additionally, the new developments in the area brought environmental problems, specifically storm-water and sewer issues. In early 2006 the US EPA noticed that sewer pipes from new developments were tied into a combined sewer overflow and were spilling raw sewage into the Mohawk River during heavy rains. Likely lured by an expectation of access to 840, a private developer took over the New Hartford Business Park and, somehow, the manufacturing mission of the park's original concept got lost.

The Millennium Project opened, but it did not go smoothly. After spending millions, facilities at the new stadium were found to be inadequate, student scheduling was a problem, and textbooks were in short supply. Every year seemed to bring new configurations of grades, administrations, and purposes.

By the mid-00s, it was clear that the Griffiss Institute (GI) was never going to produce "world-class" anything, much less than research. Review of Form 990s revealed that most of the money GI received went for administrative fees. The "Chief Scientist" that was hired from Cornell returned to Cornell and took with him the GI concept with plans to implement it there. The GI mission changed from research to education, and later it morphed into a business "incubator." It produced little more than an expensive symposium at its kickoff, and, later, some some summer jobs for disadvantaged youth.

Not wanting to maintain two airports, the County had decided to spend millions of available federal funds to move the now passenger-less airport to the former air base in Rome. The larger runways there were expected to be a draw for business to the Griffiss industrial park. Indeed, with the intercession of Senator Schumer, the Rome Facility by the mid-'00s did land (with much fanfare) a major job-producing tenant, Empire Aero. The County soon borrowed $2 million to build an aircraft maintenance training center in Rome for MVCC -- or was it for Empire Aero? No plans had been made for the old Oneida County Airport in Whitestown, but, seemingly by magic, at the end of 2005 the old airport was picked to be the site of the new New York State Homeland Security Training Center. This promised to transform the economy by bringing a steady flow of first-responder students into the area for training. By early 2006, destruction of the Whitestown air terminal had commenced.

The mid-'00s also saw the wisdom of the now Mohawk Valley Water Authority's decisions to destroy Gray Dam and expand to Verona called into question. Destruction of the dam violated the agreement under which MVWA was permitted to draw water from the Canal Corporation's Hinckley Reservoir (its sole water source). Canal Corporation wanted tribute, an expensive law suit (paid for by water users) ensued, and all expansions of the system were put on hold.

Two Thousand Six finally saw some interest at the Marcy Chip-Fab site by AMD -- and also saw the State offering a billion dollars of incentives for the plant to go to Albany. Through some quick thinking by Mrs. Destito, she was able to get the State to make a similar commitment for Marcy. However, by then it was pretty obvious that politics was ruling the decision making and that we were going to come up on the short end of the stick. After the Luther Forest site was picked, the lack of a wetlands permit was cited as one reason why we lost the competition. Seemingly as a "consolation prize," our area was picked as the site of a "state data center."

The end of the '00s finds this area with more promises -- another computer chip related facility for Marcy, and a high-speed railroad across New York -- but also some significant concerns. New Hartford has discovered that all the growth it promoted has associated costs, and it is about to send its residents a huge tax increase. The Business Park in New Hartford only moved jobs from one part of the town to another -- but will saddle taxpayers with significant infrastructure costs and, perhaps, unmitigated environmental impacts. Regional population has continued to plummet. Businesses continue to pack up and leave for friendlier climes. Fewer people require higher taxes to maintain governments designed for greater populations.

The sewer problem caused by suburban development will cost $158 million to fix and could, conceivably, cause some communities to go bankrupt. Utica has a separate sewer project that is due to cost almost that amount again, which does not bode well for Utica's future solvency. With federal funds almost gone, the large "international" airport in Rome has turned into an albatross, sucking up huge amounts of county taxes to redo facilities that were already in place in Whitestown – where we had a facility that was sized "just right" for our region. Jobs that depended on air service in Whitestown have left entirely. The Water Authority has just been handed a decision that caps the amount of water that the region may take from Hinckley to what was consumed around 1970 -- leaving little room for "growth" or unforeseen circumstances. In spite of this court-imposed limitation, the MVWA insists on spreading the little we have further into new areas to serve new customers, jeopardizing a sufficient supply for the currently developed area. Capping off the '00s, it was announced by the State this past month that we will not be getting the promised “data center.”

Looking back on the "Double-Os" decade reveals that the broken promises that had raised our hopes were all government promises. This should make us realize that the government alone cannot solve our problems. We, the people, need to take the lead during the decade of the "'10s" in creating our own solutions and to have government work with us to put our solutions into effect.

[This article appeared in the January 2010 Utica Phoenix. Be sure to pick up the February 2010 Phoenix to read "Is Now the Time for The Municipality of Greater Utica"]


Anonymous said...

Excellent reading. You're right, govt. alone cannot solve our problems. Problem is that most local govts. seem to be run by incompetents. I can't think of one single example where a local policy initiative has accomplished anything positive for this area. Not one. Now, Empire Aero is about to pack up & leave, with the taxpayers of O.C. now holding the bag for the cost of maintaining a massive albatross. Utica is now on the verge of bankruptcy with a massive tax hike coming. The UCSD has now saddled the taxpayers with paying for health ins. coverage for retired teachers going back 30 years, with not a clue what the real costs will be. IT'S SICKENING! Me, I've had enough. I'm seriously considering selling my home, in which I've invested thousands of dollars of improvements in, & moving the hell out of O.C. I can no longer afford to pay for the incompetence & corruption that rules this county.

Anonymous said...

A fairly accurate accounting. The problem one keeps coming back to is that we have elected those who so ineptly and recklessly represent us. That says so very much about the area.

Greens and Beans said...

After reading this blog entry, I agree with the others as they call the piece “excellent” and “fairly accurate.” I must add that the article is frustrating, in terms of that there were a few of us who were screaming at the top of our lungs warning the few honest politicians and residents that all of the false hype reined upon us with empty promises had all of the hallmarks of being smoke in mirrors. Unfortunately, we were correct with our warnings as the business climate here in Central New York is rapidly vaporizing.

There is no doubt about the infamous “double-O’s” slapped us in the face. But there are other additional business destroyers that contributed to the massive slide this area realized that failed to make this article. The first one was the disservice all of our political leaders allowed, some of them hid under the protection of the Public Service Commission, as energy costs skyrocketed out of sight. Another killer that placed an additional chokehold on the business climate of this area was the series of unnecessary hikes placed on Thruway tolls. This hike adversely affected this area just as bad as any of the others. The Thruway is the only major highway in which goods and products are trucked in or out of this area. Most of the other major New York State cities have alternative highways that can be used to import and export goods. They do not need to solely depend on the Thruway as the Utica/Rome area does. All of the above serve to not only hamper economic growth, but usher the mass exodus of population vacating this area.

The blame for the area’s business failures should be shared. It is all too apparent that the incompetence in governing should take center stage. The obvious nepotism and the “good old boy” mindset of who’s in and who’s out of political favor, is disgraceful. The School districts play a major part in spending $millions on unnecessary facilities, unnecessary programs, and expanding their payrolls that only marginally had any benefit for the student. They have selfishly overtaxed the public and business base. Some of the members of the media have a too cozy relationship with those who are allowed to manipulate what is printed and/or broadcasted. This needs to be cleaned up. The public has a right to be properly informed with unadulterated and unbiased news regarding the governing of this area.

Most of all, the public needs to step up and demand to be heard. But first they need to become properly informed. Next they need to register to vote. And finally, they need to force the issue of cleaning up the multi-corrupt entities that have been sucking the life out of Central New York. The press has been better lately. But the public must pay more attention to some of the news a few media outlets have been spoon feeding them. There is hope, but it is dwindling fast.

Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention the MVWA. For the 5 or 6 yrs. at least this outfit has foisted upon ratepayers hikes in rates that average 7-8% per year. This has got to stop as homeowners & businesses have had it up to here with these constant increases. There seems to be no accountability, no one questions the numbers, & they get away with it as the press reports whatever it pleases.

Anonymous said...

Today's OD ed piece is a good indication of why area officials are getting away with incompetent blunders time & again. In the ed piece, the writer said that "this is no time for finger pointing". Oh, really? Why not? Perhaps we should be asking questions such as why EDGE & Oneida County officials welcomed with open arms a company that was on shaky financial ground from the get go. Or why did O.C. & EDGE invest the $30 miliion in airport improvenents & tax breaks in a company that officials knew damn well was more than likely to fail without taxpayer subsidies. No, let's not hold anyone accountable for this fiasco that the taxpayers are going to have to eat. Let's not ask the tough questions. Let's go on our merry way until the next promise is made & hope for a miracle to save this area from ruin. Let's all get a "vision" as the OD likes to say, while the unemployed flee the area, & the welfare rolls increase, & as EDGE & O.C. officials collect their paychecks for a 'job well done'.

Anonymous said...

Harbor Point is 10 years away from being anything even close to resembling a tourist attraction or anything else for that matter. By then, as the population continues to drop due to a lack of oppurtunuties in this area, it will be nothing but a concrete wasteland. Like the newfangled airport, which will sit empty in a few months. Empire Aero did not fail due to the recession as area officials would like us to believe. It would have failed no matter what, & stayed alive only for the fact that EDGE & Oneida County were willing to give away the store, i.e., tax breaks, etc. thereby luring Empire to Griffis so EDGE & Picente would look good to the voters. A total sham.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous is correct. If one can't hold their elected reps and the people they hire for getting into a deal that blows nearly $50 million of state and local dollars, what should they be held accountable for ? It is interesting to note that the state's point man on the project was Tony Pecenti, now County Exec. The basic truth is that DEmpire was a political project as were many in the George Pataki years. He was runnin here frequently to announce projects that "could create jobs" and were funded by the taxpayer. Virtually all failed. The OD printed the headlines and swallowed the claims. The Republican "team" all fell in line. Of course, they don't want fingers pointed!

SBAG said...

This is a great article...

This is also a great illustration how "positive thinking" won't solve the area's problems... Ignoring the fact that BIG MAJOR problems exist will not make things better, and as we see here... ignorance makes it a LOT worse.

The unfortunate thing is that the "negative nancies" have moved away, and the positive thinkers are ruling the roost. Fewer and fewer people here are screaming "The British are coming!" and more and more of the population is singing, "Big Brother is good! He gave us MORE Victory Chocolate today at 20 GRAMS!"

...And they voted for Arcuri. If you don't remember what he said... let me jolt your memory:

“This area really has its best days ahead of it,” Arcuri said, “and I think we need to be optimistic because our future is optimistic.”

And Hanna?
"But Hanna said he sees things worsening in five years unless there are major changes. He has watched through the years as the state of the state has consistently declined, he said."

And who was more correct? The Negative Nancy or the Positive Pamela?

SBAG said...

Oh yeah... you forgot to mention that the "Data Center" promise lead nowhere.... Actually, I believe it lead to the Data Center being located in the Albany area...

So much for us being the "tech center."

SBAG said...

I think you're missing something else in the lack of follow-up in promises... we didn't get the "data center" project for SUNYIT.

The REAL consolation prize is the "Nanotech commercialization facility initiative" (Or whatever the heck that God-awful thing is called) which has no customers, no solid plans, nothing unique that couldn't be done better in the Albany or Rochester area for a cheap price, and is basically going to be the Griffiss Institute Part 2.