At a forum Thursday morning hosted by MV500, the Mohawk Valley coalition angling for $500 million in upstate revitalization funds, area leaders grappled with how to craft a winning identity for one of the state’s lesser known regions.
From the farms of the Schoharie Valley in the south to the Adirondack reaches of Herkimer and Fulton counties and the Capital Region leanings of Amsterdam, “We have this kind of identity crisis going on,” said MV500 co-chair Alicia Dicks.
“Of all of the regions, we’re probably the most diverse,” she said Thursday at Fulton-Montgomery Community College. “And to compete in the Upstate Revitalization Initiative, we must have identity.”
Before the creation of the state’s seven regional economic development councils four years ago — which grouped Fulton, Montgomery, Herkimer, Schoharie, Oneida and Otsego counties together as the Mohawk Valley — the region was only “loosely connected,” according to Christian J. Mercurio, deputy director of the Mohawk Valley REDC.
“There wasn’t a lot of interplay between, say, Amsterdam and Oneonta and Utica,” he said. “We weren’t natural partners.”
The MV500 group takes the REDC a step further by inviting more stakeholders with fresh ideas into the mix to craft an application for Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Upstate Revitalization Initiative. The program, modeled on the Buffalo Billions initiative, is offering a total of $1.5 billion to the three regions with the best revitalization strategies.
The group aims to have a draft application ready by Aug. 24. The deadline for submission is Oct. 5.
About two dozen community leaders and a few residents, mostly from Fulton and Montgomery counties, attended the forum Thursday to weigh in on how they thought their communities could benefit most from a $500 million infusion— without simply presenting a wishlist of projects.
“They want a strategy,” Dicks said. “Although, if you have a road that’s going to lead to new jobs, it will be part of this plan.”
Montgomery and Fulton county leaders — like Amsterdam Mayor Ann Thane, Gloversville Fifth Ward Supervisor Gregory Young and MV500 co-chair and FMCC president Dustin Swanger, among others — identified several recurring target areas: poverty, higher education and workforce training, and downtown revitalization and historic preservation.
While tourism and agriculture are also important parts of the MV500 strategy, they were not discussed in depth Thursday.
In all of those discussions, participants were encouraged to consider the “data of tomorrow,” in the words of Dicks.
“About 30 percent of our population will be millennials within the next 10 years, and millenials are investing in urban centers,” she said. “It’s a change in the way they live, work and play. So we want to capture that, motivate it and invest.”
Both Swanger and Young noted that the area is home to among the state’s poorest residents. In 2012, Gloversville had the highest poverty rate of the state’s 27 metropolitan regions, with Amsterdam coming in at No. 8 and Utica at No. 9, Young said.
“Poverty is a significant problem throughout our region,” he said. “As you look at strategies, how can we truly lift all boats? There are people who have no other place to go and they’ve been here for generations. How can we make sure they share in the success as well?”
Swanger said it’s no coincidence that the area’s higher education completion rates are also below average. Even many of those in the workforce with steady jobs are at or near the poverty line — as much as 40 percent of them, according to Mercurio.
One solution, from Swanger and others, is better access to mid-level education — a two-year degree or course certificate that can build a pathway to a trade career and middle-class earnings.
“We’ve got things happening in Albany with high tech that are very exciting, we’ve got things happening in Utica with high tech that are very exciting,” Swanger said. “It will affect our region and we have to be ready for it.”
Kelly Quist-Demars, a constituent representative for Congressman Paul Tonko but speaking Thursday as a “30-something who returned to her hometown,” suggested the common idea of retaining recent graduates may be misplaced. Instead, she argued, give them a nice place to come back after they’ve explored a little.
That played into ideas from Thane and Montgomery County Legislator Bob Purtell about reviving historic downtown areas, improving housing, and enlivening the cultural scene with art and history.
“Our generation, we’re coming back toward our hometowns,” said Quist-Demars. “We will come back if there’s an opportunity for us to make a good living and raise our kids. Let’s give them a reason to come back, let’s build that structure.”
As it continues to craft its application, the MV500 group is collecting surveys from residents of the Mohawk Valley, available online at www.mv500.com.