When Syracuse takes notice of its neighboring upstate urban communities, it’s usually to see how we measure up. That’s the impulse behind City Hall’s decision to compare Syracuse to Albany, Buffalo, and Rochester in its recent report on poverty, and it’s the impulse that drove the CNY Business Journal to run a story about State economic development grants under this headline: “CNY Wins $88 Million Award in State REDC Competition, The Most of Any Region.”
Too often those comparisons about trying to outdo each other. That preening Business Journal headline is about the money that Governor Andrew Cuomo is giving to CNY instead of WNY. We’re on top now so we’re happy with the process, but things were different in 2014 when Syracuse luminaries like David Rubin were harumphing about how the Governor had lavished attention on Albany and Buffalo while ignoring Syracuse.
It’s no mistake that State economic development causes this kind of backbiting. The Governor knows that so long as his ersatz competitions are the easiest way to get some of the State’s largesse, Upstate’s cash-strapped cities will focus more on beating each other out to win those competitions than they will on working together to change the structural causes of their dependency.
It’s time to try something different. The reason that Syracuse’s City Hall can easily compare itself to Albany, Rochester, and Buffalo is that all four cities have the same problems. They’re all post-industrial and shrinking, they’re all trying to run their governments on insufficient property taxes, they’re patching holes in their antiquated sewer systems. It’s time to recognize that these are problems best solved through cooperation rather than competition.
That cooperation can take many forms. First, upstate mayors should all meet together with the State and Federal politicians who represent their constituents and agree to advocate for policies that will meet all their cities’ specific needs. That’s how New York State’s Land Bank legislation came about. There are plenty of other policies that would benefit all upstate cities, from better funding for transit Upstate, to amendments to the New York’s home-rule legislation. Coordinated lobbying will help Upstate’s cities push those policies through the legislature.
Second, upstate cities can also work together on regional projects that better integrate their economies. The State’s Regional Economic Development Councils encourage that kind of integration within a metropolitan region, but upstate cities should look beyond their immediate suburbs to partner with each other. Better transportation links between cities–whether that’s lower Thruway tolls or better train service–would make Upstate more attractive to big businesses looking to employ lots of people, and they would make it easier for small businesses to expand into new markets.
Third, upstate cities can share ideas to deal with their common problems and to act on their common opportunities. Syracuse studied Rochester before coming up with a plan to remove snow from its sidewalks. Buffalo’s Canalside is a good example for any city that regrets having paved over the Erie Canal. Utica is showing how upstate cities can take advantage of Amtrak. Syracuse, Rochester, and Ithaca can all look to each other when trying to figure out how to make a huge private university an asset to everyone who lives in the city.
Cooperating like this isn’t easy. It takes commitment, vision, and solidarity–rare qualities in New York’s political class. But people living in Upstate’s cities–from Troy to Tonawanda–can lay the foundation by visiting each other, recognizing our common interests, and learning to see ourselves as a community.