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Defining Success

How to be hopeful about Upstate

Of course there’s another report about the awful poverty, debt, and fiscal distress in Rochester, that Upstate New York city blessed with a truly distinguished university, a very well regarded medical center, a Frederick Law Olmsted park, a strong arts scene, gorgeous and well tended domestic architecture, and some of the finest urban rowable water in our fair country—miles and miles of the Erie Canal enthusiastically plied by oarswomen and even some oarsmen, by kayakers, and by lazy fishermen with motorboats, too, and lined with bicycle paths, once used by freighter-towing mules, that help spectators get enthusiastic about the least spectator-friendly sport still included in the summer Olympics.

Rochester is a fiscal basket case, just like Syracuse, just like Buffalo, just like Detroit—but that does not mean that the regional economies in these places are all collapsing. Demographic trends are negative overall, yet millions of people, all told, still live in places where the weather is challenging, where there’s a whole mess of messes left over from heavy industry’s salad days, and where the poverty, and the violence, and the low test scores in the schools persist. Cities that are the prevailing sites for regional poverty are where fiscal distress is high and standardized test scores are low. Where the kids are mostly poor, poverty is the leading correlative for poor academic performance, just as poverty is the leading correlative for fiscal crisis.

In our latest Upstate distress report, the data include reference to a key fact, which is that Rochester, for all its wealth and intellectual capital and other great attributes, also has one of New York State’s five “dependent” school districts. That means that Rochester’s schools get the special state aid that also goes to Buffalo, Syracuse, Yonkers, and New York City. Twenty years ago, Rochester funded 36 percent of its education budget from its own tax base; today, only 28 percent comes from inside the walls. Buffalo funds only 24 percent of its school bill from within; Syracuse only 23 percent. Rochester has exhausted 74.9 percent of its constitutional tax limit and 60.8 percent of its debt limit, which is worse on both counts than Buffalo, which has a fiscal stability authority or “control board,” and worse than Syracuse, which probably will.

So should we turn out the lights? Hang it up? Nah. Here is a four-season catalog of what to look forward to in Upstate New York.

1. Spring talent

We’ve got it. Upstate New York truly is a center for human talent. So long as the State University of New York system continues to maintain its three dozen campuses and doesn’t go the way of the California university system, the ongoing creation of human capital, in the form of baccalaureate, masters, doctorates, and the various certificates that get issued, means that the Upstate economy will indeed have a strong export base. Having both public SUNY schools and the many private institutions means that we make skillsets here, keep some of them, and send the rest out to the world. And to the extent that the urban neighborhoods of Utica, Buffalo, and Rochester continue to welcome refugees from Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan, and other world capitals of distress, there is at least a trickle of the stream of new blood that made these former industrial centers super-rich in decades past—and the more of that talent that stays, the better we will get. Let’s celebrate the fact that at least a few bucks of the millions being spent on new buildings for the University at Buffalo’s medical school are going to actual persons. Be glad that it’s not Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse that is being targeted for shut-down. Thrill to the ongoing success of Rochester’s scholars and physicians, and speak reverently of the inland island community of Ithaca, where Cornell’s faculty and staff rank at or near the top of every list of grant-winning universities in the entire United States. If only Cornell were in one of our rusty cities; but then, if it were, that city wouldn’t be near so rusty.

2. Summer visitors, summer growth

The regional economic development councils convened by Governor Andrew Cuomo all address tourism and they all address agriculture, and rightly so, because tourism and agriculture are both strong, and both continue to provide real earnings. The economic development people still absurdly inflate the visitor figures for Niagara Falls—it’s not 12 million people who go to our side, only three million—but those three million do indeed come here, and to the Finger Lakes, and to the Adirondacks, and even to a few attractions like the Mormon pageant near Rochester, and the Baseball Hall of Fame near Binghamton, and to Chautauqua near Jamestown. Be glad that the drought afflicting two-thirds of the United States is a stranger here, for the relative productivity of New York State agriculture will remain high, again. Be glad that hydraulic fracturing hasn’t contaminated water-tables or rivers here, as it has elsewhere. Threats to the summer Upstate economy include $4-a-gallon gasoline, falling Lake Erie levels (down below previous-record 1993 levels), invasive species in the forests and in the water, and the ongoing “sequestration” mess in Washington, which will reduce the funds going to military bases in Niagara Falls, the Finger Lakes, and the Mohawk Valley. But do be glad about the rain that keeps us so green.

3. Fall harvests

See Spring, supra. Of all the industries here, higher education could be the most productive. While the banking and financial-services sectors may shrink more, and while manufacturing may inch along with refreshed investment but not net increased employment, it begins to dawn even on imaginative union leaders (imagine that!) that marketing the city colleges to the burgeoning population of metro New York City means fishing where the fish are. Buffalo State College, Canisius, D’Youville, and the downtown medical campus are strengthening the urban core; a centralized, consolidated Erie Community College could do even more, of course, but the existing city colleges are already real. For each household that departs the beleaguered, depopulating zone of abandonment east of Main Street, it’s possible to see a replacement household form west of Richmond, with a sprinkling more arriving soon near the Larkin Complex.

4. The Winter of our new content

The global economy may indeed be lurching ever-closer to unfathomable crisis, nudged along by ideological polarization, and the resulting impasse, in the United States House of Representatives. Adjusting Upstate regional expectations has to happen in this context. Though this region of America may be the left-behind zone, the marginalized region, a place that cannot rationally expect to share in any of the immigration and net new births that Census statisticians expects will swell the US to 400 million by 2030, Upstate’s urban regions will nevertheless continue to attract and retain some demographic groups. Population will erode, but not plummet. The masses of eastern and southern European immigrants that arrived before World War I, and the masses of African-Americans that came north after it, will not have a 21st-century counterpart. But stasis need not be crisis. Stasis as a new policy framework may be exactly what the world can learn from.

By the winter of 2014, the fiscal crises of the Upstate cities will be unavoidable. Life will roll on, probably, much as it does now, while the New York State Comptroller’s stack of reports about all the other governments in fiscal meltdown grows taller. By winter, the healthy new civic movements for smart growth, regionalism, and a new sustainability may actually be aided by the new urgency of dealing with the fiscal problems of these places.

Already, the email exchanges among members of Syracuse 2020, a well established reform group with ties to the very engaged Syracuse University, suggest that a broad-scale consensus for city dissolution and regional governance is emerging. The messaging in the upcoming mayoral race in Buffalo will probably be more about Potemkin Village development projects than about gnarly issues of governance, but that’s okay, because the constant repetition of praise-songs for civic improvements may stimulate a few more city households to form. Boosterism is no substitute for thinking. But maybe if Rochester starts facing up to the inevitable in the same way that thinking people in Syracuse already are, the mood for a new paradigm may change here, too. After all, we will be skating on those replica canals next January, won’t we?

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at

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