Monday, August 25, 2008

Education, Environment, and Entrepreneurship

Earlier this summer, I was fortunate to attend a presentation by a talented economist named Anirban Basu, from the Sage Policy Group. He did a fantastic job of synthesizing various economic trends, linking them with materials from Thomas Friedman's book, The World is Flat, and the levers contributing to the increasing trend toward globalization. He affirmed the reality of expanding economies in China and India and the equally stagnant United States economy. One important conclusion he drew was that entrepreneurship would be key to the survival of our country - large corporations will continue to thrive through maximizing the benefits of globalization, but it will be the smaller more entrepreneurial enterprises that will be our economic savior.

Traveling home on the plane two days later I sat next to a gentleman from Saratoga Springs who had been involved in the intentional renewal of that city in the 60s and 70s. We talked about the benefits that city found in finding a focus - a focus to rally around and channel all major initiatives that, over a decade or two, guided all development, investment and renewal in the area. He said it all clicked when they landed on the theme of History, Health, and Horses as the guiding principle for the region. They wanted to go beyond having think of the area as “one month of the year” to recognize that there is more to the area. Now, when one thinks of what makes Saratoga Springs special, history, health and horses pretty much capture the signature elements of the area.

Driving home from the airport I got to thinking about Oneida County and the Mohawk Valley and what the signature elements of our area might be. My involvement on the Genesis Board of Trustees has helped me to appreciate the potential and influence of education - K-12 as well as the multiple colleges in the area. The recent CollegeTown project supported by the Genesis group, involving college students from MVCC, SUNY-IT, Utica College, Hamilton College, and Munson Williams Proctor/Pratt Institute to benefit local agencies on hospitality row gave us an example of the significant impact education can have on the region. Higher education often provides the dynamic nexus needed to "break the bones" of economic stagnation, ultimately leading to meaningful and productive community-wide transformation. Locally, that theme has lead the effort among legislators, economic developers, and the business community to pursuing a nanotechnology center on the SUNY-IT campus.

I then started thinking about the incredible environmental resources in this area - for recreation and quality of life, as well as renewable energies and thought of the many conversations happening considering "green" as a signature element of this area. It would be hard to find a region in the Eastern United States with more potential to lead the way toward an economy that can leverage its natural resources to achieve a green economy. EDGE has recognized this attribute most recently, adopting the green apple as a new logo to promote economic development throughout the region. In addition, the quality of life and healthy aspects of our environment here separate this community from others. Our air and water quality along with four seasons of outdoor activities and healthy signature events like the Boilermaker and Heart Run/Walk make for a uniquely healthy environment in which to live.

Just before I took the exit off the thruway I thought back to the presentation I saw on the key to our country's economic future - entrepreneurship. I believe the entrepreneurial spirit is alive here in a big way - from the hundreds of successful small businesses located in every Mohawk Valley community, to the incredibly successful operations of the Oneida Indian Nation, Sovena, Indium, Utica National Insurance and many others. It could be semantics, but I think it’s worth consideration, that we might have more success lobbying for a better business environment if our arguments were tied to a larger framework for development beyond “cut taxes and provide more incentives.” Entrepreneurship is flourishing across the Mohawk Valley region and, with a little more nourishment, it could be rampant!

We do have our share of plans – 5 point plans, 10 point plans, etc. – But having Education, Environment and Entrepreneurship as guiding principles for all plans could provide a focus for development and renewal that hasn't existed here for at least 60 years, if not 160. These three principles could serve as a unifying force for a larger community that is, too often, subject to a significant lack of unification when it comes to development efforts. These are just some thoughts I've had as I think about the many significant challenges we collectively face in this region and how we might move forward with a common vision. Tell me what you think at presblog@mvcc.edu.