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Oneida County prepares for the new economy

By Norman Poltenson

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ROME — Long before Oneida County was a political entity, the area served first as a military outpost for the Continental Army, then as a transportation hub on the Erie Canal, and next as a manufacturing center during the Industrial Revolution. During World War II, the region became home to a major Air Force base that helped to fuel the local economy. The closure of Griffiss Air Force Base toward the end of the 20th century threw the area into an economic tailspin.

Oneida County is now on the pathway to a new prosperity. “We’re building the bridge to get there,” says Anthony J. Picente, Jr., Oneida County Executive. In his Vision 2020 statement released in 2014, Picente explains, “We have the resources for building that bridge — our people, our institutions, our environment, and our character. The region is creating a high-tech hub driven by nanotechnology, cybersecurity, UASs (unmanned aerial systems), and the research and development at Rome Labs.”

The most visible part of the new economy is nanotechnology, the science of manipulating materials on an atomic and molecular scale especially to build microscopic devices. Oneida County has targeted the semiconductor industry with the purpose of establishing both a research-and-development center and a major fabricating facility to manufacture chips. Today, chips are ubiquitous, found in everything from televisions and cell phones to computers, automobiles, and medical devices. Semiconductor manufacturing is projected to be a $375 billion industry by next year, with average salaries nearly twice that found in the local economy.

The urgency of implementing Vision 2020 is based on the scheduled completion of the first construction phase (Q1 /2015) of the Computer Chip Commercialization Center (Quad C) located on the campus of SUNY Polytechnic Institute (formerly SUNYIT) in Marcy. The 253,000-square-foot building, which is about one-third of the planned facility, includes a 56,000-square-foot, Class-1 cleanroom designed to host public-private partnerships. The full build-out (675,000 square feet) should house 1,500 high-tech jobs on site.

The concept of the fabricating plant is also moving ahead rapidly. After 17 years of identifying a location, conducting an environmental-impact study, rezoning the site, obtaining a wetlands permit, commissioning an economic-impact study, obtaining state funding for site development, hammering out a PILOT increment financing (tax-sharing) agreement with five taxing entities, and purchasing additional land, the manufacturing-facility, site-development improvements are on track and the site is being marketed to the industry.

“When it is fully built out, the fab facility will house 8.3 million square feet,” says Steven J. DiMeo, president of Mohawk Valley EDGE, a regional economic-development organization headquartered at the Griffiss Business and Technology Park in Rome. “The [Marcy] site is comprised of 428 acres, which gives us ample room for expansion, and the fact that it will be shovel-ready allows companies to go into production rapidly. The location’s proximity to the Quad C research facility is a major attraction to manufacturers who want to be near cutting-edge research. My concern is that we align the workforce with the needs of business; that is to say, the school curriculum should match the career skill-sets needed. Tony’s (Picente) Vision 2020 creates the dialogue and focus necessary to accomplish this and to make the … [public] aware of the opportunities.”

In June 2013, the county executive convened a group of 50 volunteers to create three committees in order to develop a strategic plan designed to capitalize on the impending opportunities. The committees focused on aligning resources with the need to prepare the workforce (Education & Training committee), ensure adequate and appropriate housing, and be sure that the diverse community had access to the expanding opportunities. Picente designated this effort phase one of his vision.

Education & Training
“We want our students ready to support high-tech enterprises,” says Howard D. Mettelman, district superintendent for Oneida–Herkimer–Madison BOCES who chairs the Education & Training Committee. “Our goal is to have 100 percent of the 34,000 students in Oneida County competitively prepared for the workforce: That means a cradle-to-career plan. One way to accomplish this is to engage the K-12 education community to work in concert with business on career development and to create internships for the county’s youth. 

We also need to work with business on internships for college students to gain hands-on, practical workforce experience. Just in the last year, we have doubled the number of high-school internships in the area from 470 to 955, and some of the local colleges have agreed to expand their internships by 10 percent. Internships help the student connect with business and decide whether an industry is attractive, and it also gives the company a chance to see the student work on real projects in a corporate environment to determine whether he/she is a potential employee.”

In addition to expanding internships, the committee is also focusing on creating a database to identify current job vacancies. “The [New York State] Department of Labor and the Workplace Investment Board are working collaboratively to create the database, which should be online in 2015,” affirms Mettelman. “The committee is also creating a nanotechnology advisory [sub-] committee to focus on the special needs of that industry, and we have reached out to the trades to create multiple pathways for both young and older adults. In addition, the Education & Training Committee is encouraging area colleges and universities to create new dual-credit offerings and to encourage ‘articulation,’ whereby students can get college credit at no cost while still in high school.”

Access & Opportunity
The Access & Opportunity Committee is designed to promote and support entrepreneurship, business development, and job creation in a diverse community looking for opportunities created through the county’s economic-development efforts. “This is a very diverse community,” says Anthony (Tony) Colon, founder and president of Techno-Logic Solutions, Inc. located in Utica. He defines diversity as underrepresented populations in ethnicity, linguistics, socio-economic status, religion, disability, age, and educational level. “The Utica city school district has 46 different languages spoken, and in 25 percent of the Utica homes English is spoken as a second language. As daunting as this appears, most countries utilize English in technology fields, so it doesn’t have to take a long time to move technologists into employment positions.

“The area is also known for welcoming immigrants and refugees and for having a number of agencies that can help to integrate new arrivals into the community,” continues Colon. “We need to streamline the process by creating a single welcome-center and be sure to communicate the help that is available. 

We’re relying on the faith-based community and on individual community leaders to assist. Utica is a small city and we have a reputation for getting things done. Just look at the impact of the Boilermaker [race]. Finally, we need to eliminate barriers to translated resources and to interpreters; develop more mentors for the underrepresented populations; promote the benefits of minority- and women-owned businesses (MWBE) and of programs for the disabled (DBE); and create a support network among the existing MWBE and DBE communities to help newcomers complete the application process,” Colon says.

Housing
The third committee created in Vision 2020 is concerned with meeting the housing demands of a changing demographic associated with those employed in the new economy. “Most nanotech workers aren’t looking for traditional housing,” observes Picente. “Instead of the house in the suburbs, most of these workers want an urban setting, which means traditional apartments, condos, single-family attached homes, townhouses, and loft apartments. 

Oneida County would benefit from the development of an inventory of these rental/lease properties. This means encouraging local governments to modify their land-use laws, zoning regulations, and subdivision restrictions; speeding up the depreciation schedule for investors; and identifying creative, new financing vehicles to encourage private-sector investment.”

DiMeo detects a real sense of optimism in the community. “Good days are ahead of us,” he opines. “There is a sense that this county has invested wisely for the new economy; that a rising tide should lift all boats. We watched the nanotechnology strategy in the Albany–Saratoga region, which took 20 years to develop, and we have learned from that process. Phase one of Vision 2020 focuses on Oneida County, but this is clearly going to be a regional development effort. 

“The Marcy Campus is now tied to Albany, so we need to draw a 90-mile radius around Oneida County and focus longer-term on a regional approach. Keep in mind the snowball effect once the Quad C center and fab facility are built out. Ultimately, we’re expecting 3,000 workers on the campus sites with a multiplier effect of four additional jobs, and that’s just the impact of nanotechnology. Add in workers needed in cybersecurity and in the burgeoning UAS industry, and there is a clear path to growing the area’s population and creating high-paying jobs,” DiMeo says.

Picente agrees that Vision 2020 will lead to a regional effort, “… but we had to start somewhere,” he says. “We need to establish a solid footing before expanding geographically. I expect committee reports on our progress by early 2015, and then we can monitor our phase-one progress and move on to phase two, which will focus on our transportation assets and other areas that need support, such as retail and general services. I have added $5 million over five years to upcoming budgets to support needed incentives, infrastructure improvements, education, and quality of life issues. (The county legislature adopted the budget on Nov. 12.) This master plan is designed to prepare us for growth in both the county population and in jobs. These are the two benchmarks I’m using to determine success. The real credit goes to those involved in the planning process and to the community for embracing the vision of a new and prosperous economy. Together, we are ready.”                                  

Contact Poltenson at npoltenson@cnybj.com

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