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FMCC’s “Swangertown” key to cracking the “regional” code

Regional_Code_Article

© iStock/alphaspirit

“Regional thinking” has been one of the most often repeated ideas in the local media over the past few years. The advantages touted by proponents of this idea sound promising; more jobs, less taxes and everyone wins in the end. The lesson being taught is that large-scale developers don’t care about your city/town/village boundaries and so neither should you. Therefore, the only way is to consolidate cooperate and give up your land and resources while clinging to blind faith that someday “regional thinking” will pay off economically for your community.

Now I want to be clear, I am completely in favor of regional economic development plans and efforts. I think the Mohawk Valley Regional Economic Development Council has proven to be a good way of prioritizing and allocating state aid to various localities. I think the Fulton/Montgomery Regional Business Plan, which was part of County Executive Matthew Ossenfort’s campaign platform, is also a good “big picture” vision for economic growth. I also think the recent marketing plan initiative by the Montgomery County Business Development Center is a worthwhile endeavor.

There’s no doubt that bringing in large businesses (500+ employees) is not something any one locality can do on its own. Cities don’t have the land, and towns don’t have the water and sewer infrastructure. Development projects such as these have to involve cooperation between municipalities in order to work. And our region needs the jobs and tax revenue that large developments bring.

But the problem with big businesses is that they have shown over the years they do not necessarily bring the type of financial stability many imagine they do. When big businesses move, they make big waves in the economy. In Amsterdam, we’re still dealing with the ripple effect of our big industries relocating decades ago.

Now if a locality has a strong base of small and medium-sized businesses, those disruptions can be minimized. But strangely enough, both local media and some of the loudest proponents of “regional thinking” (especially those who are affiliated with the “CEO Roundtable”) have gone further than just promoting regional cooperation. They have actively discouraged local economic development efforts (such as city marketing), and have even pronounced judgment that the idea of local economic development simply hasn’t worked.

But let me ask a few questions:

How are big businesses and “regional thinking” working out for the residents of Canajoharie, who are still stuck paying off their loan for a huge water system built for Beech-Nut Corporation just before it relocated to the Town of Florida?

How are big businesses and “regional thinking” working for Fonda-Fultonville school district taxpayers, who are feeling the financial effects of Walmart successfully getting the tax assessment on their distribution center lowered by millions of dollars over the next few years?

How are big businesses and “regional thinking” working for Town of Amsterdam residents, who nearly got a tax increase last year despite the booming development on Route 30 (an idea which got a pass from the local media who would normally cry bloody murder whenever the city of Amsterdam considered a tax increase). For that matter, how is it working out for the city which is providing water and sewer lines for these developments?

And I’d really like to know what the residents of the cities of Johnstown, Gloversville and Amsterdam think about our community college, FMCC, embarking on a large-scale housing, retail and restaurant project while their own downtown areas are struggling for viability.

See, I believe it’s the unveiling of the FMCC’s “global village” project that provides the “key” to cracking the “regional code”. It’s not hard, in retrospect, to see why Dustin Swanger, president of FMCC, has been one of the biggest evangelists of “regional thinking”. The 12 million dollar project will be built on land owned by the college and controlled by the FMCC foundation, rather than in city downtown areas that would directly benefit from this type of project. And while Fulton and Montgomery County taxpayers contribute almost 3 million dollars annually to help fund the college’s current 18 million dollar budget, no details have yet been released by the college detailing the economic benefit this project will bring to our localities.

Swanger also reportedly plans on asking Johnstown and Gloversville for a water deal. Johnstown, the closest city to the college, has a reputation for being protective of their downtown. Swanger released an opinion piece just before the last election which did not mention names, but which I believe was directed against mayoral candidate Michael Julius (who was elected), an outspoken proponent of protecting Johnstown’s identity. FMCC apparently has wells it can utilize, but obviously hooking up to a city water supply is the cheaper option, otherwise the idea would not have been mentioned.

It’s actually not hard to decode the “regional thinking” language. Whenever economic ideology is espoused without supporting facts and details, just look for the money trail leading to the source. In our region, it seems, “regional thinking” translates to “sell your water, sewer and land to large-scale developers at a favorable price, even if doing so works against your own long-term best interests. And by the way, please give up trying to develop your own local economies lest you become strong enough to compete or independent enough to be able to negotiate better terms.”

When considering regional economic plans, citizens in Fulton and Montgomery counties need to remember that their city, town or village has unique needs and interests which are no less important than anyone else’s. No one should let anything they read in the local media make them think that they have to sacrifice those interests for the sake of “regional thinking”. We need to make sure that county leaders and large-scale developers show in detail how their plans will improve the economy for everyone, not just a few.

And finally, we need to remember that developing our local economies by working to attract small to medium-sized businesses is just as important to our long-term economic health as bringing in the big ones.  And you don’t need a secret decoder ring to understand that.

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About Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of AnthemWebsites.com LLC which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.

8 Responses to FMCC’s “Swangertown” key to cracking the “regional” code

  1. Judith Heffernan Elmy says:

    I ABSOLUTELY agree with the opinions expressed here. I really do not think ‘Swangertown’ will help economic growth, (except maybe for a few college kids visiting Moe’s!)…as was previously expressed somewhere else as an asset for the Town of Amsterdam! I simply see FMCC working to financially benefit itself…at the expense of two poverty level counties!

    • Tim Becker says:

      I’d like to think that college students are looking for more than a burrito at a national chain restaurant. At their best, they are looking for new experiences that broaden their understanding of the world. I think living in a real city – dealing with the good and bad aspects – would provide that experience far better than living in a manufactured community out in the middle of nowhere.

  2. Pat Q says:

    Not getting into the politics of water deals, mixed retail/residential units on college campuses have been done successfully in many other areas and contribute economically to their surrounding communities while also contributing to student success. There are many benefits to having on-campus facilities, rather than in downtown Johnstown, Gloversville, and/or Amsterdam. These include the ability to establish effective living-learning communities, easy access to college resources, attracting quality students and maintaining enrollment. Also, search ‘FYE Outcomes’ for examples of how successful first year programs set up long term student success. FMCC can still be economically beneficial to the area without geographically distributing their student housing out in the area communities with the resulting transportation issues. Many parents and prospective students value the campus experience highly when picking a college, and competition for good students is tough and getting tougher over time: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/some-colleges-in-region-are-hit-particularly-hard-as-enrollment-falls/2013/12/19/f757dca0-6282-11e3-91b3-f2bb96304e34_story.html

    • Tim Becker says:

      Many college campuses are well connected with the downtowns in the cities they are in. You have Union College and SCCC in Schenectady. You have Saint Rose in Albany. Those arrangements have worked great for those cities. However, FMCC is not connected like that. It’s a nice idea that the development there could benefit the region, but aside from their PILOT payments, I have yet to see how that will work.

      Beyond that, what is the intended role of a community college? Is it right that they should compete for housing, retail and restaurant customers with the very communities that are helping to fund them?

  3. Pat Quinn says:

    I suspect most of FMCC’s students are from the geographical area surrounding the college and commute to school. I checked the strategic plan and was disappointed not to see enrollment targets…although the school is interested in “a campus culture that attracts and celebrates diversity”. The rooms at Microtel house international students.

    I don’t know if FMCC plans to compete for local students with retail and housing, but what if they attract more students from outside the area? Those students pay higher fees and may be able to subsidize local students. What if the campus grows and creates more jobs? Can it use revenue from students paying out of state tuition to create new programs?

    I don’t claim to have all the answers. I’m not familiar with the SUNY fiscal structure or potential revenue streams, but wanted to throw out some points to consider. One contentious topic at public schools here is that we’ve been hit by state cuts and turn to international and out of state student recruiting to offset the loss of revenue, making it tougher for in-state students to gain acceptance. It is tough times in higher ed – fiscally, recruiting, retention, reporting outcomes, average student debt and loan default rate standards.
    Oh, and how to best use MOOCs.

    • Tim Becker says:

      I’m all for the college being competitive. I graduated from FMCC myself in ’95 and I’m happy to see it doing so well. I admire Swangers ambition and vision.

      But think about it – we’re going to bring in people from surrounding areas and from other countries, and then have them live out in the middle of nowhere in a manufactured downtown.

      Meanwhile there are three struggling downtowns in the area that would be any easy commute (especially if you added a regular shuttle service) that could do far better at providing a real cultural experience that gets college kids involved in an actual community with history and culture. And those areas would benefit a whole lot from an influx of college age kids.

      Gloversville’s downtown already has the Glove Theater, Food Co Op, Farmer’s markets, public library, a sports bar and some good restaurants.

      Amsterdam’s downtown has a great new billiards hall/restaurant, a pizza place, book store, public library, and a satellite campus of FMCC. It’s also within walking distance of the Riverlink Park and the South Side which has about five restaurants/bars and a few other shops plus a bike trail.

      I think if the college added a few million dollars of development to each of these areas, rehabbing some of the old buildings to create student housing, adding just a few more retail/restaurants/shops, they’d be able to offer a much richer and authentic experience to students that would be mutually beneficial to the cities and the college.

  4. bob stern says:

    The mistake was building a car dependent campus in middle of nowhere, but you see the same thing all over the state. There campuses were seen as economic development for upstate NY, even the 4 year schools. You hear downstaters complain about locations frequently. But locating the campus in one of the cities would have resulted in either fulton or Montgomery community college.

    • Tim Becker says:

      I’m not sure if it was a mistake Bob, I think the original purpose of FMCC was to be a commuter college which would serve students living anywhere in Fulton/Montgomery and so therefore the location is really perfect for that.

      But per Pat Quinn’s comment, I think it’s true that community colleges like FMCC are evolving into colleges that compete for students from other areas (maybe out of financial necessity, possibly out of ambition as well), and in that case have to provide housing. But that’s a whole new way of looking at community colleges.

      I understand the drive to create an on-campus living experience similar to 4 year colleges. But ya know, as long as we are thinking “outside the box” in terms of community college, I don’t see why having dorms in the nearby cities couldn’t work. It’s just a 5-15 minute commute and most students are already happy to do that. Get a good shuttle service going and I think we could offer a unique experience that benefits both the college and the communities that support it with it’s tax dollars.