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.
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