If you’ve never been to Syracuse, you’re not missing much. Oh, don’t misunderstand – it’s very pretty, unless you have a dislike of snow for 5 months a year. You’ve got hills, valleys, apple orchards, lots of open farmland, beaucoup trees with a beautiful fall, and enough year-round recreational activities to keep most of us happy.
No, we’re talking the city proper. You know, the urban landscape.
Syracuse, along with several other Upstate New York cities (Buffalo, Rochester, Watertown, Binghamton, Utica, Schenectady, Albany) is a ghost from cities past. They’re like many legacy cities from the industrial northeast, the Rust Belt. And like Marley’s ghost foretold, pay attention if you don’t want it happening to you.
After years of false starts and broken dreams, it’s déjà vu all over again. We’re starting another renaissance attempt. Maybe this time it will happen. But at what cost, and who’s picking up the tab?
Over the past couple of years I visited my old hometown of Riverside, California a handful of times. Prior to the most recent financial meltdown, Riverside had bonded almost a billion dollars for their renewal projects. Things such as road realignment, park renewal, railroad underpasses and general beautification were to be done to bring the city back to life. Of course even then you knew it wouldn’t be enough. Heck, to dig a roadway under a railroad must cost close to $500 million, right? Even if it’s ‘only’ half that amount, you can’t do too many of those before you’re resorting to picking up pennies from the street to pay the bills.
And Riverside was nowhere near the shape that Syracuse is in.
Back in the day, Syracuse was blessed. It had the good fortune to be built on the Erie Canal, which at one time was like the autobahn. There were all sorts of manufacturing companies: General Motors, Carrier, Syracuse China, Smith-Corona, Franklin automobiles and my personal favorite, Marsellus Casket. Unfortunately, as went manufacturing, so went the local economy. None of the above is still here. About the only thing we manufacture here is excuses.
For all intents and purposes, at this time we’re banking on Syracuse University to be the driving engine behind our renewal. And for the most part, that seems to be finally working. It’s somewhat troubling to be putting your hopes into one source, but others seem to be finally catching on. But we’re still limited in some ways by our location. Syracuse happens to be in the middle of New York. And unless you count The City, no one wants to be here any more. The economy inhaled gas years ago and Albany seems intent on extracting every dime left behind by the Federal government. Catch-22.
But believe it or not, there is spring after the deepest winter. The good news is that SU kept us going, attracting other development, new buildings, companies coming back into the city.
We’ve got an on again-off again mega mall being built. The story behind that could fill several pages, but let’s put it this way – I refer to it as the Big Empty. After several dormant months, there is a construction guy on site and the expansion may be complete before the world ends, but just barely.
We’ve got a 50 year old freeway (they don’t call them that here, it’s my contribution to the local lexicon) called Interstate 81. For 49 years it has been crumbling. I’m no engineer, so I don’t understand the chemical reactions in play, but salt causes steel to rust and concrete to break apart. And the elevated sections of I-81 are, surprisingly, concrete and steel. And you probably know we get snow. So what do they use on the roads to melt the snow? Yep – salt. We didn’t get the nickname ‘Salt City’ for no reason. We’ve got billions of tons of the stuff. Gotta do something with it! Anyway, they’ve been trying to figure out for the 20+ years I’ve been here what to do with I-81 when it reaches the end of its useful life. Some would argue that’s already been, but they’re just carping. They’re just bitter that the same section has to be rebuilt every year or two, taking up to a year to do it. Some of the potential solutions have been interesting: burying it, like Boston did. Making it street level. Making it into a boulevard. Blowing up the city entirely and relocating it to Arizona. OK, I made that last one up, but it’s got potential.
We’ve got Armory Square, which is a poor man’s attempt at turning part of the city into Bohemia or at least Greenwich Village. It’s what makes a university city something special – funky shops, non-chain restaurants, etc. It’s small but may finally be growing. It’s anchored on one end by the Museum of Science and Technology, which has an IMAX theater and many cool displays.
There are currently a few different projects going on in downtown proper. Don’t laugh, but one of the more significant ones is moving the bus terminal.
Yeah, the bus terminal. And terminal is an appropriate word for it. Currently, the main transfer location is on the main north-south drag through town (not counting I-81). It’s crowded, with dozens of buses daily, and seems to have taken on an underlife of its own. Syracuse suffers from many of the issues found in other urban settings, although probably not as bad. The fact of the matter is that when you have many people in a crowded area, sometimes people become frightened and sometimes predators lurk. It’s certainly not Baltimore, nor even Rochester, but the area has become, well, blighted. So one of the solutions is thought to be to move the transfer point a few blocks away while concurrently rebuilding some of the century-old buildings in the vicinity. There is a three block stretch being transformed, including a beautiful old theater. That theater is being expanded and remodeled to what could be a showcase. The stage expansion will be able to handle bigger Broadway-style shows.
A few years ago, the stadium where the AAA minor league Syracuse Chiefs played was no longer viable. The debate then was to build a new stadium downtown. Sadly, that didn’t happen, because it would have probably sparked the rebuilding of downtown much sooner. It was instead located next to the old ballpark on the north end of the city. But that story begs the question: who pays for all this rebuilding?
Because the ballpark was owned by the county, it was paid for by a combination of county and state funds. As I recall, virtually no private money went into it. And that’s where the problems begin.
Public funding of building projects is a hot-button topic for many. Eminent Domain factors into the equation as well. But let’s look at funding.
Part of the issue is that building a stadium of any size is outrageously expensive. And to build something like a Yankee Stadium or anything at that level costs billions. Team owners, those who ultimately benefit from them, are loath to have to pay, especially when they can hold the city or the state hostage. And don’t think they won’t play that card. Witness the New York Jets and the New York Giants professional football teams – do you think by their names that they’d play in New York? Nope. Partly because the cities where they used to be located didn’t pony up enough money to keep them. And that’s the argument. Let’s say you’re living in, oh, Billings, Montana. Let’s say a major league team wants to move there but only if you’re willing to bond (i.e. pay for) a stadium. Now, being from Montana you have enough sense to say no. What would you get for your tax dollars? Traffic, for one. That doesn’t sound like a fair deal.
But some cities thrive on the prestige of having a team. And that’s OK, as long as they’re happy with paying out for someone (or several someones) benefit.
But juxtapose that with revitalizing a city. Does public financing make sense? Sure it does. Believe it or not, blight costs. More crime, more police presence, no revenue from businesses generating sales tax. Think Gotham City before Batman.
Now you dump billions, mortgaging the future, guaranteeing every citizen a higher tax burden for eternity. Does that make sense? At the very least you have the intangible called civic pride. At most you have new places, new businesses and a broader tax base which generates more to the city for more improvements, more services or (gasp) tax reductions.
Is everybody happy with it? Nope. You’ve got NIMBYs everywhere (Not In My Back Yard). These folks want to preserve the status quo regardless of how bad it is. They don’t like change, they don’t want to take a chance on improving anything because you’re taking them out of what they’ve grown complacent with. They’d wear the same socks everyday because they’ve just got them broken in.
Fortunately, in Syracuse anyway, the NIMBYs are out of luck for the time being. Good for them. Maybe it will keep businesses and people around for awhile.