June 21, 2013

Tossing the ED coin: Tails, You Lose

As I noted the other day, economic development is like a coin toss – sometimes business win, like The Sound Garden did, and sometimes they lose.  And businesses aren’t the only winners and losers – people like you and me can win or lose depending on how the deals go.

Take, for example, the businesses along Syracuse’s Connective Corridor, who had the threat of having to pay special maintenance fees to keep the Corridor looking in tip-top shape hanging over their heads for a while.
What is the Connective Corridor?  Well, it’s kind of hard to describe.  It's a vision, more than anything else. It's over $40 million in grant money, spread over multiple phases, to make a 'connection' between Syracuse University and Syracuse, the city.  Here’s the official description:
The city of Syracuse is home to three major universities, more than 30 art and cultural venues, and shopping centers all within close distance to one another.  In the coming months and years, nodes of the Connective Corridor will be stitched together and showcased with new urban landscapes, bike paths, imaginative lighting, public and interactive art, signage, and way finding systems.
What’s that mean?  Well, there’s been a lot of work done along East Genesee Street, University Ave, and part of Fayette Street.  Traffic patterns are different; new lighting has been put up; bike lanes are in; there’s a lot of color coordination – and to be honest, it looks pretty good. There’s been a lot of talk about the giant red benches in the park on the 700 block of Genesee, and more about the cool sidewalk at Syracuse Stage. Overall,  things seem to be looking up. 

And the  work means there’s now a need to maintain all of this connective tissue, as it were. Businesses along the Corridor were notified recently that the Syracuse Common Council was
considering a proposal to merge properties along the Connective Corridor into the Downtown Special Assessment District (DSAD). Since the district was created in 1976, downtown businesses have paid an extra fee on their taxes for maintenance and other services provided by the nonprofit Downtown Committee of Syracuse. It would be the first expansion of the special district.
That fee, for the Connective Corridor businesses, would have been more than $28 per foot of frontage; about $149,000 would have been raised from around 50 businesses in the area. The money was to have been used to add a couple of dedicated maintenance folks to keep the Corridor in shape.  

There were some businesses that were OK with the fees, but certainly for many of the smaller businesses along the way, the fee would have been very hard to bear, and hard to pass on to customers as well.
One of the big concerns mentioned in the many news stories on this was that the businesses were not aware the fees would be charged when the Corridor work was finished – it was one of those out-of-the-blue things that get sprung on businesses all the time in the form of regulations, fees, special charges, and so on.  And for businesses that were there before the connectivity vision was floated, well, this was seen as a slap in the face.

In the end, the Council voted down the proposal, leaving the DSAD intact (and actually downtown, some would say) -- and leaving the Connective Corridor maintenance-free.  So that would seem like the businesses won, right?  And their customers, folks like you and me, we won too, right?
Well, not exactly.

Listen to Norm Swanson, a long-time local developer; he has three businesses that would have collectively contributed around $22,000 to the fund had the proposal gone through.
Maintenance is everything. Maintenance is taking the money that’s been invested and almost multiplying it. As you continue to put the money back in and keep it fresh, this is what brings new business to locate there.
You know he’s right, don’t you?   

You can see it, every day, all around the city.  You can even see it along the Connective Corridor already. This picture taken by Dave Tobin of The Post-Standard last October, shows one of 19 lights that had been damaged even as work was nearing completion.

Next time you’re out and about, look around. Look at the condition of our highway ramps,something local columnist Sean Kirst puts into words so well. Look at parking lots and sidewalks; look at lighting. Look at signage, and plantings, and paint jobs and store windows.  Heck, even look at your own neighborhood. 

Can you honestly say that maintenance doesn’t matter?   No, Swanson’s right: maintenance is everything. 

We won't live or shop where it's a mess, and businesses don't want to move into neighborhoods that are a mess, filled with broken lights and trash and weeds higher than the red park benches... we know this, because we pass by places like this every day, and cringe. We pass by, literally, and take our business elsewhere.

The bottom line is, once these projects take off, it's in our best interest to see them through -- and that means maintaining them when they're done.  And it would certainly help if those in charge have the foresight, going forward, to figure out a way to ensure that after the opening celebration, there's a way to keep the project going on a day-to-day basis.
Unless someone – SU, or the Common Council or the Mayor or the Downtown Committee or the businesses themselves - come up with the money that’s needed to keep the Corridor looking good (and if that means adding a few cents to all of our tax bills, that's OK too), it will go the way many of our other economic development projects: the initial investment is made, but we don't realize the end result we thought we were going to get.  

Tails, you lose.