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CEO FOCUS: A New Future for I-81 and Central New York

By Robert M. Simpson


Large-scale infrastructure projects are gaining national attention for their opportunity to spark growth and create jobs as the country seeks to recover from the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. This creates an important opportunity in our own community, which is why CenterState CEO is advocating for a “record of decision” on the redevelopment of Interstate-81 (I-81) as one of its top five 2021 policy priorities. Having been the subject of research, modeling, and debate for years, it is time for the project to move forward, as it is critical to safe and efficient transportation for Central New York. Additionally, the Community Grid option and its community-driven priorities stands to serve as a model for other regions embarking on infrastructure projects seeking to achieve more than just transportation solutions.

There are signs of progress as Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in his State of the State address that he expects the project to break ground next year. Also, in February, Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh discussed the project with members of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s staff. I am hopeful that these conversations will result in the necessary federal funding needed to complete the $2 billion project.

While these conversations move forward, it is imperative that we shift our collective focus to maximizing this opportunity to ensure that the people in this community that need jobs have a clear pathway to those created by this project, particularly women and minorities. To prepare the local labor force and contractors so they are well-positioned to participate on this project, CenterState CEO is working with Mayor Walsh and Onondaga County Executive McMahon to develop and launch Syracuse Build. This workforce initiative is dedicated to developing career opportunities in construction-related fields for Syracuse residents, particularly from low-income communities and communities of color. As the economy begins to pick back up, and with work on I-81 on the horizon, Syracuse Build will produce a pipeline of qualified local workers.

This project, and the jobs and new investments it stands to bring, provide hope for a stronger more equitable future for our community. To learn more about Syracuse Build, contact Dominic Robinson, VP of economic inclusion at             

Robert M. Simpson is president and CEO of CenterState CEO, the primary economic-development organization for Central New York. This article is drawn and edited from the “CEO Focus” email newsletter that the organization sent to members on Feb. 18.

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