In tale of two harbors, Syracuse comes up short: Mitchell Patterson

08-16-2018

Mitchell Patterson is a regular guest columnist for Syracuse.com and The Post-Standard. He is a former venture capitalist and current entrepreneur. He lives in Clay.

A couple weeks ago, I was invited to an event at the Mohawk Harbor, a revitalization project recently developed in Schenectady. The project, started in 2015 on an industrial brownfield, has grown into a mixed-use district on the Mohawk River that includes hotels, restaurants, condos, apartments and even a casino. This was my first time seeing the project. My first thought was: Here is yet another small city with better planning and results than we have.

When I returned home to Central New York, I drove to the Inner Harbor to see what progress has been made with Syracuse’s version of the project. For almost a decade, I have watched as plans were unveiled to reinvigorate the empty fields and parking lots that litter the neighborhood. In each instance, nothing substantial happened. So far, there are some apartments being developed on one plot of land, and two hotels.

The history of developing the Inner harbor goes back to the mid-1990s. The state invested millions into upgrading the infrastructure and hoping to find a developer willing to invest in the city of Syracuse’s lakefront property. Multiple times over the years, press announcements were made about a new project starting at the Inner Harbor site. From 2002 to 2009, progress stalled over and over, for a variety of reasons, with the recession of 2008 putting a long-term hold on any traction for change. In 2012, the city chose Cor Development to undertake a $350 million redevelopment of the Inner Harbor. It has proceeded in fits and starts, due to a fight with City Hall over tax breaks and Cor’s legal troubles with other projects.

I would argue many of the issues with the development of the Inner Harbor, and perhaps other areas in Central New York, stem from the fact that local developers seem unwilling to invest in a project unless large amounts of public funding are provided to alleviate the risk. More importantly, the region’s elected officials and economic development individuals have lacked a consistent plan with a long-term vision of what the harbor could be.

We’ve been here before. Projects have often been seen from the perspective of a silo, rather than as part of a grand plan that would link each idea and encourage privately funded future projects. Instead, most projects have seen the return on investment only realized by the developer, rather than by the community, whose tax dollars paid for the projects.

In 1997, P&C Stadium was completed. The modern-day minor league baseball stadium, now known as NBT Bank Stadium, was supposed to revitalize the neighborhood. While a renaissance of downtown stadiums for both professional and minor league teams was occurring, the local leadership chose instead to place it on the edge of the city with no plan to leverage the investment. In fact, the only development that occurred was construction of a storage facility that blocks the view of the ballpark.

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Patterson, Mitchell. “In Tale of Two Harbors, Syracuse Comes up Short: Mitchell Patterson.” Syracuse.com, Syracuse.com, 16 Aug. 2018, www.syracuse.com/opinion/index.ssf/2018/08/in_tale_of_two_harbors_syracuse_comes_up_short_mitchell_patterson.html.