Rochester has received a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reclaim its roots and reputation as the imaging capital of the world. But confusion surrounds how the hundreds of millions in federal and state dollars received to grow a photonics and optics manufacturing ecosystem will be deployed—let alone leveraged to prop up the cluster in less than five years, which grantors mandate. America’s payments processing hub provides a roadmap to success.
I recently moved back to my hometown after living in Atlanta for 18 years and am impressed with the energy surrounding Rochester’s photonics industry. It is reminiscent of a 2-year-old initiative I helped found to create awareness of—and support and investment for—Georgia’s payments processing industry. More than 70 percent of every American credit, debit and gift card swipe is processed by a Georgia company, and more than 40,000 people are employed by 90 local financial technology, or fintech, companies. Yet nobody knew the industry existed on that scale in Georgia—or in one place in America. We needed to raise the profile as it became increasingly difficult to recruit talent and investment, and compete with other states that provide lucrative incentives to take companies away from metro Atlanta.
In less than two years this newly united payments industry aligned the entire Georgia congressional delegation (Democrat and Republican) around legislative efforts to protect the hometown industry; secured nearly $2 million in investments from the state and city of Atlanta for two projects to keep local companies and create approximately 800 jobs; formed a study committee through the Georgia General Assembly to identify necessary resources and tax breaks for the industry; and created the moniker “Transaction Alley,” now used around the world, growing visibility for the region’s payments industry.
The hard work of leaders like U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, state Sen. Joseph Robach, Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Robert Duffy, leaders of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo helped the Rochester region receive $110 million in federal funding and $250 million in state matching funds to ensure long-term viability of the photonics industry. Unfortunately, the funds and opportunity brought political squabbling and the typical battles for a seat at the “deciders” table. As a result, the general public has seen many headlines but few actual jobs, facilities or other signs of significant progress during the initiative’s first year.
Those in the industry, especially small businesses—many of whom carried the optics mantle for Rochester after our blue-chip companies struggled to remain industry pacesetters—feel left in the cold. And so do technical colleges and other resource providers who have been marginalized while the deciders plot a course and determine resource allocation.
The clock is ticking and the region cannot wait, which is where Atlanta’s fintech industry can be a model for getting back on track. So many in Rochester have toiled to bring about this remarkable opportunity, and they should be commended for that work. Moving forward, as Transaction Alley guides us, we must align elected and industry leaders by unifying the community, speaking with one voice about the photonics industry’s current and future impact on jobs, our economy, and constituent quality of life. The industry must be made tangible and brought to life for stakeholders by giving it a sense of place and telling its story, including its unparalleled history.
And we must unite industry competitors, business groups, elected officials, community leaders and academia to set clear goals and maximize outcomes and influence. Failure to unite around, and rapidly deploy, a clear plan engaging all key parties will ensure this rare chance is a last gasp for the region, and the hard work that got us here will be a historical footnote. The future is ours to seize today.
Michael P. Mills is president of Atlanta- and Rochester-based Valeo, a communications firm representing Atlanta’s fintech industry.
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