“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.