SANE: Working to Build a Participatory Economy

February 19, 2008 -- Partnership for Working Families

By Mark Spadafore, SANE Executive Director

On December 13th, the Syracuse Post-Standard published the editorial, “Development Delays, Upstate’s Prospects Compromised by High Costs, Inefficiency, Neglect.” The editorial argued that state of New York is not business friendly, taxes and energy costs are too high, and onerous “bureaucratic burdens” are imposed on developers, stifling economic growth in upstate New York.  On the other hand, when referring to the development of state-funded projects, the newspaper noted that decision makers in our area must “enlist the support of the broadest possible spectrum of community interests to ensure that their decisions are in the best interests of all.”

The Board of the Syracuse Alliance for a New Economy (SANE) agrees whole-heartedly.  We are working to build a participatory economy that will indeed address the “best interests of all.”  SANE will accomplish this by using community resources and education to promote and achieve equitable economic growth.  SANE will use Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) to ensure that we reach that goal.

Community Benefits Agreements are designed to avoid delays that hurt economic development by changing the way we plan and execute large, publicly-subsidized projects or projects requiring major land use approvals.  What is lacking in this debate about allowing a developer to purchase public land is how the residents of Syracuse benefit from the sale.  For example, developer Robert J. Congel of Pyramid has proposed building a $472 million research and development center on 60.3 acres of land commonly known as Ley Creek Transfer Station.  The Developer will receive tax and other benefits during and following construction of this center.  At this point neither the developer nor the City of Syracuse has agreed to negotiate a legally binding agreement requiring the developer to use local labor to develop the land, guarantee the creation living wage jobs, and provide other community benefits.

The Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency (OCRRA) - a national leader in community recycling - owns the land Mr. Congel seeks to acquire.  The OCRRA facility employs local residents.  As it currently stands, OCRRA would be held legally responsible to provide the same services in Onondaga County as it does at the Ley Creek Transfer Station.  However, Mr. Congel seeks a tax credit on for the development project and a tax debit for those who rely on OCRRA services.  The financial obligation for OCRRA would be substantial and would be borne by Onondaga County residents.  This is an ideal example of how our community allows developers (not just Mr. Congel) to dictate the terms of development over public lands.  What is clearly missing in the discussion around this project is, “how will the community benefit?”

A Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) can bring substantial benefits for both the developer and the community.  With a CBA, the community is deeply engaged in the outcomes of development.  Project details are laid out up front and construction rolls smoothly once it begins.  If the community feels that it has a stake in the development, then it reduces the risk that there will be protests or lawsuits which can result when residents feel that their voices are not being heard.  Everyone wins when developers and community members can reasonably expect that large, prominent, heavily subsidized projects will go forward under a community benefit agreement that will address the best interests of all concerned.

The Syracuse Alliance for a New Economy wants a process that allows for community input and advocates for written guarantees that the community will benefit from the sale of any public lands. That is why we invite all developers, economic development professionals, neighborhood leaders, labor leaders, environmental leaders and other committed community members to contact SANE and help engage in the work of accountable economic development.