By Chris McNickle | February 5, 2020

Governor Cuomo has submitted a wish list of small-bore proposals for the new state legislative session. While many of those plans are admirable – he wants to expand cellular service and require officials to release their tax returns, for example – plans of that scope are not going to move the needle on some of our most pressing problems. We need to consider far bolder initiatives to spark growth and boost revenues.

Despite the myth that our economy thrives best if we just get government out of the way, the truth is American industry has always been most successful when supported by government investments in research, infrastructure and other crucial areas.

In New York State today, we have an opportunity to boost four regional economies that stretch across the middle of New York State. They constitute a competitive corridor of unlocked potential, that will only be released if government and business come together and pursue a bold public-private investment strategy.

The corridor is anchored on the east by Albany and moves west through Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. These four areas account for nearly four million people–roughly 20 percent of the state—and comprise the key economic centers of Upstate New York.

A recent study by the Brookings Institute and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation put all four cities on their list of target regions with the potential to become centers of high-tech innovation. Out of 382 metropolitan centers, Albany ranked third, Rochester fifth, Buffalo nineteenth, and Syracuse twenty-sixth on factors that are most relevant, including infrastructure, education, and business environment.

The scale of public investment required is consequential—maybe $2 to $4 billion per year over ten years. Even during a year of fiscal stress, a state with an annual budget of more than $170 billion can handle that size investment. And it should, because the four metropolitan regions in New York’s competitive corridor have what it takes to be America’s next high-tech centers of excellence. The potential is enormous.

Creating a self-sustaining, high tech ecosystem starts with a world-class research university, often affiliated with a research hospital. Ideally, those anchors are supported by a regional cluster of institutions of higher education, which across New York includes 64 SUNY campuses, the largest state university system in the country serving 1.4 million students.

The area must have a high proportion of college educated workers skewed towards science, technology, engineering, and math, and it must have a core of existing knowledge industry businesses as a launching point for organic growth. Lastly, it needs a critical mass of general population, a half million to a million people.

Upstate New York has it all, as well as unparalleled natural beauty and a quality of life that can match any in America, as long as your definition of life includes four distinct seasons.

Local leaders across the spectrum of business, academia, and government are best placed to determine how to align their cities and towns in the direction of the new economy. Already, each region has identified key industries, including life sciences and bio-technology, unmanned aerial systems, advanced manufacturing, and climate-controlled agriculture. Local leaders are creating connections among different businesses and sectors to foster innovation and programs to ensure that the local labor force is trained for the jobs.

Let’s remember that America’s most vibrant centers of high-tech industry were richly nurtured by government spending. There would be no Silicon Valley without government support for research performed at Stanford, and no Route 128 outside Boston without federal research contracts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The same is true of North Carolina’s Research Triangle. Each of these regions received about $3 billion in federal grants in 2017. Foolishly, the federal government has been reducing its spending on primary research, so New York State must take matters into its own hands.

Short-term budget concerns, urgent as they seem, should not prevent a state like New York from forward progress. Albany’s leaders should step up and support these regions so they can realize their potential. The greatest risk they face is too little investment for them to reach the momentum required for lift-off and self-sustaining development.

It’s been said that if you don’t know your past you can’t plan your future. Two centuries ago, New York built the Erie Canal, linking the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes, the American Midwest and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. With that single investment, New York became the economic lynchpin of America for decades with economic benefits that extend to this day.

It is no coincidence New York’s competitive corridor tracks the Erie Canal. With business and government working in partnership, it can become the Erie Canal of the 21st Century. With bold government action, we can pursue a really big vision and allow four million upstate New Yorkers to propel us forward into the modern economy, drawing on our strengths, our natural assets, and our intellect.
What are we waiting for?

Chris McNickle writes about New York politics and government. His most recent book is Bloomberg: A Billionaire’s Ambition.