Home / Columns and Features / Why can’t Upstate N.Y. flourish like cities in the South?

Why can’t Upstate N.Y. flourish like cities in the South?

Several leaders in the Rochester business community recently participated in discussions about economic development across the Finger Lakes region. We talked about reports on our region’s economic progress that vary from favorable to challenged in terms of the gains we are making. One study that we read shows the Rochester and Finger Lakes region’s economic progress as weaker than some other upstate communities.

While studies are important to analyze, discuss and learn from, it is difficult to determine where we really stand today by studies and reports alone. I say this because my wife and I recently took a road trip to visit family in Alpharetta, Ga., and what I saw first-hand on this southern swing told me more than any report I could read.

Our first stop was in Greenville, S.C. In our day and a half in Greenville, I was truly impressed by the lively downtown with sidewalks filled at all times of the day and night. Restaurants and retail businesses lined the streets with patrons of all ages coming and going. Driving into Greenville, I saw several ongoing construction projects and passed by a large BMW manufacturing plant and other manufacturing companies. After spending just a short time in Greenville, I came away with a very favorable impression of that community and region. I was struck by the energy, growth, and activity that we witnessed.

I have a high school friend who relocated his business from the Rochester area to Greenville within the last few years. He told me that the savings he realized by moving out of New York allowed him to hire two new employees in Greenville to help grow his business. His story is an example of the benefits of the positive economic climate in that region.

Following our stay in Greenville, we drove the 140 miles to Alpharetta, about 30 miles north of Atlanta. My wife’s sister and her husband have lived there for several years. Throughout our drives around the area, I was astonished by the level of construction and economic activity that I witnessed. We could not drive more than a few blocks without seeing cranes in the air, new housing developments and businesses under construction. It was startling how much was going on. One observation I made as we talked in the car driving around is that there cannot be one unemployed construction worker in the Greater Atlanta region.

Each housing development we saw seemed more beautiful than the last. While housing there certainly comes with a higher price tag, the property taxes are a fraction of what we pay here in New York, allowing people to own more home.

Yes, upstate construction work is seasonal and sometimes spotty at best. However, I do not believe weather is a main factor in why our friends in the South are outpacing us in economic development. It is simply a different philosophy and energy that I saw down there.  I wouldn’t call the cost of living in the areas I visited as cheap, but you can see and feel the growth all around you. It’s palpable.

Sometimes we become accustomed to what we experience every day and look at little signs and steps of growth as positive, but to visit areas like Greenville and Alpharetta that are seeing explosive growth was very thought-provoking. My takeaway was not just the cost differentials between our states, but the question, “why are other regions doing so well, while we struggle to promote consistent economic growth at home?”

While there is no single or easy answer to that question, it takes federal, state and local governments, academia, our business community and our voters to truly start looking at what we can do differently to bring an explosive turnaround to our region. New York State, led by Governor Cuomo, has recently pledged nearly one billion dollars of investment in the Rochester and Finger Lakes region. That commitment is a truly appreciated catalyst for growth. However, it takes more than this huge investment to make the difference that we need. The push for change must go deeper.

We need to look for ways to spark new growth. We must evaluate taxes, regulations, and other frustrations of doing business that we have created for ourselves over the decades across New York. Perhaps other areas of the country like Greenville and Alpharetta can serve as examples of how we can make a difference here. We must create regulations that protect workers and property owners without discouraging investments and growth. This is easier said than done, but it is possible. It is impossible to spur growth in development and investments without supporting business growth.

The Rochester and Finger Lakes region is blessed with an abundance of water, four beautiful seasons, great higher educational institutions and brain power, impressive companies and industry and very hard workers. We have every component to match anyplace across this country except perhaps the political will to make an impactful difference. While other regions across the country thrive at a pace that is hard for us to comprehend, why can we not follow suit?  We cannot stand still, do business as usual, and expect to get better.

One remedy that can start us in that direction is regionalized legislation. The economic climates of upstate and downstate are vastly different and so should be the regulations that govern the two. Like New York State recently did with a split minimum wage law, other legislation impacting business can follow the same model. The Scaffold Law, workers’ compensation, and other regulations that negatively impact business come to mind that could benefit from split legislation. Let’s find a win-win. Regionalized legislation could be a huge step forward for much greater future economic vitality for upstate.

With some focused changes, we can all work together in planning for the future of our children and grandchildren so we are not left further behind.

Robert J. Duffy is president and CEO of Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at rduffy@GreaterRochesterChamber.com.

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.


  1. All about corrupt NY politics and incompetent NY politics and fundamentally flawed NY political policy. There is no deeper swamp than the one in Albany.

  2. Only once in this article did he mention TAXES and not as the big problem. It’s Taxes ,taxes,taxes. NY is # 50 in tax friendly states. Why can’t the so called leaders of NY get that. Get your head out of the sand. Upstate is voting with it’s feet.

  3. I submit that Rochester will flourish better than cities of the South because we will fare better in Climate Change.

    The South and the West, however they might be thriving at the moment, are in serious need of water—and they are going to get very hot. Rochester has lots of fresh water. We also have healthy soil for those regions of the world in danger of droughts and unbearable heat to come when they can no longer thrive.

    And, Rochester has the remains of a vast infrastructure (making and moving large industrial components) that can be retrofitted to making solar panels and wind turbines.

    If we plan and prepare now for the consequences of Climate Change, Rochester will be set for more sustainable development and alluring for climate refugees from the South and other regions.

    We need to act now to adapt to Climate Change because places in the South are going to be inundated by a lack of water, oceans rising, and heat—lots and lots of heat.

    Already, Rochester, along with several other major New York State cities, is vastly increasing its electric vehicle charging stations to accommodate vehicles that will make driving more efficient and less polluting. Rochester’s leaders need a vision as a city preparing for a warmer planet, which will help us to thrive.

  4. I recently relocated from the Rochester area to Roanoke VA. One of the things that drew me to the area was seeing how effectively they are revitalizing the city. Over 60 restaurants are now operating in a concentrated area that also includes a (mostly daily) farmer’s market and lots of little retail stores (and galleries and music venues and parks and regular collaborative festivities throughout the city limits). People are moving downtown in droves (old department store buildings are being converted to high-end condos, other sites are being developed for affordable living catering to millennials). Apparently, ten years ago, the place was a largely vacant blight. This growth has been made possible through private, public and government sector cooperation.

    One of the things that struck me during my more than 20 years living in the Rochester area was how groups that should be looking for complimentary strategies for solutions in a united fashion were often competitive and combative. Rochester has so much to offer (as those working together in the tourism industry from both the private and TPA sectors are effectively demonstrating with resulting economic benefit to the area). Too bad the government funded entities and municipal leaders don’t seem to be able to operate with long term vision toward the greater (revitalization) good. It would be wonderful to see City entities stop fighting for fair share of funds and start collaborating toward, well, survival. What I’ve witnessed underscores how critical a vital city supports economic growth through a large surrounding area. Will cooperation prevail over time? I don’t know. I sure hope so because what Rochester has to offer from a cultural, park, academic excellence, activity and good people standpoint is so much greater than most cities of any size.

  5. Lamar McAlister

    One of my homeowners shared this article with me who moved to Greenville, SC from Rochester and absolutely loves it. I also have homeowners from Chicago , 5 as a matter of fact, Washington state, Pennsylvania, Manhattan and other areas from the ” Yankee” land and starting to see the west coast come to SC as well.

    Jobs Jobs and more jobs. BMW, ZF Transmission, Boeing, Mercedes Sprinter vans soon to built in SC as well. We are also in progress of exploring drilling off the coast for natural gas and oil with the potential of 11,000 to 45,000 jobs being created.

    The cost of living is great here, the food is phenomenal to say the least and tea is sweet and the peanuts are boiled at our ball games.

    Housing prices are the best ever and are constant increasing in value.

    We welcome anyone and everyone, but beware, WE DON’T CARE HOW YOU DID IT ELSEWHERE. YOU MOVED HERE NOT US MOVING THERE.

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