Downtown Utica-why does it seem so hard to get it past the "idea" stage and into the development mode that just about every other large, medium and small city across the state has been successful at? Even Schenectady, the city that Utican's loved to poke fun of, has now eclipsed us in downtown development.
What are we doing wrong?
I have a few ideas that I think have hindered us in "landing the plane" of downtown turn around.
Utica residents love to hate their city. At least they love to vocalize that hate. I think they just hate the stalled progress and broken promises that they have endured for the past 40 years. A whole generation of Utica has grown up being told that success is just around the corner. It never really comes. The reaction is to grumble about how crummy Utica is, what a dump it has become, how there is nothing here and no reason to stay. For some reason they do stay and they continue to complain. If they really truly did not care, they would not even talk about it any more.
But they do care.
For many years, the Utica metro region has done everything in its power to suck the retail and commercial growth out of the already developed urban grid and transplant it to farmland, wetlands and apple orchards. The end result-a decaying, underutilized urban fabric next to suburban sprawl that has eliminated natural green space and agricultural economy.
Are we really better off?
When Griffiss Airforce Base was closed in the mid-90's, the entire region scrambled to replace the lost jobs and economy that was generated there. EDGE was formed and most of the regional push was to fill the space. A drive through the base today presents a vastly changed infrastructure. Gleaming modern buildings and public sculpture greets visitors driving over smooth as silk roads.
A vastly different experience from a trek through downtown Utica.
The question is, why can't that same can-do regional spirt now be applied to downtown Utica? Are we not in essentially the same shape as Griffiss was in 1995? Empty, underutilized commercial buildings such as the Harza and HSBC are just waiting for the same kind of investment that created the Griffiss redevelopment. What holds us back?
Cooperation between communities is the answer.
If you don't agree with that, just listen to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. "Parochialism is destroying NY State" he said recently. "Regional cooperation is the only way we will survive this economic downturn."
To prove his point, he created ten regions that will now compete for funding from the state for economic development. The regions that show the most cooperation will each win 40 million dollars.
How will we fare in this competition?
If the experience of the last 20 years is any indication, we will come in dead last.
We can change the attitude of every citizen of this community if we demand that our elected officials and the folks who run agencies like EDGE come up with a plan to turn Utica around. It cannot happen if everyone is not committed to it.
We can have all the high paying nanotech jobs in the world, but if the folks earning those big dollars do not want to live, visit or invest in Utica, as a region, we are sunk.