November 4, 2008

A New Dawn for Upstate New York

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Good morning, my fellow Cornellians,

My name is Kevin Casey McAvey, the new Executive Director of the Upstate Foundation and a grad student here at Cornell, finishing up my second Masters in Applied Economics. While to some, the “applied” portion of the title may still seem abstract, I assure you, very much like much of Cornell itself, my studies and interests revolve around the very real problems facing Upstate New York.

As some of you may have heard, and other may have guessed, Upstate has not exactly been a “Silicon Valley” of economic growth over the past few decades. Like much of rural America, especially those locations caught in the old “rust belt,” Upstate has been hit hard with the departure of manufacturing and production jobs overseas. Further, its businesses, those that decided to remain, have been weighed down by a heavy tax burden, inefficiently administered by an overly bureaucratic and antiquated governance system in Albany. Upstate has also been witness to a phenomenally devastating natural-born talent flight from its cities, towns and villages. The next generation is simply not sticking around to turn the page on this, the most discouraging chapter in the history of the great Empire State.

This last concern — the issue known and referred to as “brain drain” — is at the heart of my studies. Why do citizens of Upstate leave, all too often not to return? Is it that they do not like the environment? Is it that there are no jobs for them to take? Is it simply a social problem? These are the questions I have continually asked myself for years, starting while I was in undergrad just up the road at Colgate University where I first began to get involved in community development. Though I found answers to these basic (applied) questions, I figured we would be able to start to identify the source of one of the greatest inhibitors for sustained economic development in our region.

Young professionals, very much like blood to the body, or, as we all know too well by now, credit access to the business world, are the lifeblood of any economy. Some of my peers may disagree with me on this point — noting that there have been many “successful” development projects that have revolved around “bringing people home” such as investing in “mega projects” like constructing hockey rinks, stadiums or convention centers and setting up “senior-friendly” environments. But none of their counterarguments would, or have resulted in naturally regenerating, sustainable economies.

Young professionals beget young families, young families beget young children and eventually, a new generation of young professionals emerges to start the cycle anew. This is the key to long-term successful communities — not “long-term” as defined by politicians on an election schedule or by for-profit developers willing to stick around only until another job arises — but to us, the people who look upon Upstate as our home, today, tomorrow and forevermore.

But Upstate New York has been bleeding for too many years. Bleeding under the supervision of incompetent doctors, more than willing to stitch up a wound without locating and fixing the torn artery. Its sustained injuries have not been dealt with, nevertheless properly ascertained. Infections are everywhere — in our crumbling infrastructure, our aged housing stock, our dependence on “across the border malls,” our reliance on New York City and Downstate to prop up our financial base. And the mood in the hospital room is anything but conducive for a positive-outlook recovery. Upstate New York is in trouble, and few can deny this fact.

All this said, however, there is hope. Over the past few years I have had the pleasure of speaking to and working with — both inside and outside of Cornell — some of the most passionate, energizing people, ready and willing to take on the challenges Upstate New York is facing. Over the next few months, through this blog, I hope to bring to light the first glimpses of a new day for our region. Like my father always says, sometimes it’s when troops are marching in against you that you finally witness the troops lining up behind you.

Going forward, I will speak about these challenges we are facing both locally, here in Ithaca, and elsewhere throughout the State. I will speak to the efforts of Cornell and its pursuit of the land grant mission. And I will tell you a little bit about why I am dedicating my life to ensure that this land of green hills, fresh air, clear night skies and warm, close-knit communities reaches the potential I know it has.

I look forward to speaking with you more, and I encourage your input as we begin what I hope will be a very rewarding conversation.

Best Always,
Kevin Casey McAvey