“If you build it, they will come” is an overused expression from the baseball fantasy movie “Field of Dreams.” They did come in that case, they being Shoeless Joe Jackson and other baseball greats, who returned from the dead to play some ball on the field that Ray Kinsella built on his farm. But not always, as the saga of the Luther Forest Technology Campus in Saratoga County shows.
In that case, “they” are the nanotechnology businesses that were supposed to fill the campus. But with the exception of the GlobalFoundries computer chip manufacturing plant, none has come. The campus, owned by a nonprofit economic development corporation, has a network of roads and other infrastructure, but no other tenants. What will it take to get some?
Tax breaks, says the Saratoga County Industrial Development Agency, which wants to hand them out but which the towns of Malta and Stillwater, where the campus is located, don't allow there. That prohibition was part of the town’s zoning approval for the campus in 2004.
At the time, it wasn’t thought to matter because the state, under its Empire Zone program, would reimburse businesses for their local property taxes. That’s what it does for GlobalFoundries, to the tune of $13 million annually. But the state shut down the problem-plagued program in 2010.
It wouldn’t matter if Joe Bruno was still in power in Albany. He steered $1.2 billion in cash and tax incentives GlobalFoundries’ way, and another $100 million in infrastructure for the campus and its infrastructure. And he would have come up with more if necessary to see that the campus was filled.
But Bruno is gone, and there seems to be a feeling in the Cuomo administration that the Capital Region has had enough state largess for hi-tech and it’s time to spread it around to places like Utica, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. So it appears that any tax incentives for Luther Forest will have to come from the locals.
If Malta and Stillwater agree to allow them, they should have some say in who gets them and the amount (it should be nowhere near the 100 percent exemption for10 years that the IDA typically grants for manufacturing).
While tax breaks are often dismissed as corporate welfare, the sad fact is that everyone else offers them, and businesses are unlikely to come to Luther Forest unless they get them. But If they are granted, the authorities must make sure the public gets a real return on its investment.