Consultant: Changes needed at tech park
On paper, Saratoga County has no stake in whether the Luther Forest Technology Campus succeeds or fails.
But in reality, the financial struggles of the sprawling industrial park — home to a world-class operation in GlobalFoundries — are so important to the regional economic future that the county’s economic development strategic plan, released this week, devotes a whole section to it.
“LFTC’s current position as a struggling industrial park charging premium prices is neither competitive nor sustainable,” the plan straightforwardly states.
That’s what a lot of people who aren’t highly paid consultants have already decided. Other than the GlobalFoundries semiconductor factory, the enormous park in both Malta and Stillwater hasn’t attracted tenants very easily.
After only five years in operation, the park is basically bankrupt, despite the state, during the Pataki-Bruno years, sinking $100 million into its initial development. The Democratic administrations since 2007 have left the privately owned park largely to fend for itself. With no revenue coming in, last year the LFTC Economic Development Corp. cut its full-time staff.
There’s a potential deal under which Saratoga County would take ownership of the internal roads now owned and maintained by the town of Malta if some of Malta’s rules for the park are loosened. But the agreement hasn’t jelled.
Easing restrictions on the kinds of companies welcome at the park, and allowing the park to offer tax breaks to new tenants, would require Malta to change its zoning rules. New discussions will start soon between town officials and the campus economic development corporation, but nothing is certain.
Into the ongoing saga has come the county’s consultant, TIP Strategies of Austin, Texas, siding with those who say significant changes are needed.
The firm — whose principal, Jon Roberts, has been a state business development director in both Oregon and Texas — has looked at successful parks across the country.
Competitive technology parks, it said, offer good sites and buildings, flexibility in leasing and a “positive reputation” — something the technology campus might have initially had but is losing.
TIP said successful tech parks generally can offer incentives such as low prices, special breaks on property taxes and “fast-track” municipal approvals. Luther Forest’s marketers can’t promise any of those things.
The park’s marketing is hamstrung by zoning rules that were written when the tech park was being created in 2004, with the idea that prohibiting tax breaks in the park would protect local taxpayers.
At the time, the thought was that the tech park could land semiconductor factories and the rest of the park would fill with suppliers, industrial services and spinoff companies.
But TIP Strategies has concluded that vision is unlikely to become reality — and simply having more than a thousand acres of remote land to offer for development isn’t enough anymore.
The current trend, according to TIP, is toward high-tech companies landing in research parks affiliated with universities, or at least closer to university centers than Luther Forest.
“University-based research parks that are embedded in a regional innovation ecosystem are in a better position for near-term growth than are tech parks that do not offer a range of innovation-oriented services and amenities, but instead primarily offer real estate,” TIP’s report said.
TIP offered some ideas. Thanks to Hudson Valley Community College having its TEC-SMART center nearby, it said, it’s possible the technology campus could qualify for the Start-Up New York program, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s much-ballyhooed plan to let companies locating near colleges operate tax-free for up to a decade.
There also should be a full-time property manager, the TIP report said, to work on keeping tenants happy.
Somehow, the report recommended, the park needs to have the ability to offer tax breaks and the flexibility to market to companies not directly tired to semiconductor manufacturing.
There’s widespread skepticism in the traditional economic development community that Cuomo’s plan will really work. But you better believe nobody wants to be quoted saying it.
On the other hand, there’s also an argument that GlobalFoundries Fab 8 alone is such an overwhelming presence that the park’s roads, water, sewer and gas lines aren’t able to handle more tenants — especially if GloFo builds a second factory, pushing on-site employment toward 7,000.
Stephen Williams is a Gazette reporter. The opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. He can be reached at 885-6705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.