County executives are upbeat on reopening

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The top elected officials of Monroe, Onondaga and Oneida counties are upbeat and mostly on the same page regarding their counties prospects as they move through the New York’s phased reopening.

Speaking to an audience of nearly 200 attendees in a June 4 web conference on rebuilding the upstate economies, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello. Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon and Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente see the region as ripe for reopening.

Presented by the Rochester Beacon and Central New York-based nonprofit Upstate Venture Connect, and moderated by Beacon managing editor Smriti Jacob, the panel discussion attracted from throughout the upstate region.

“We’ve learned that phase one had no impact,” said McMahon, referring to the fact that the three upstate counties have not seen an uptick in COVID-19 cases after taking the first step toward restarting their economies laid out in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s four-phase blueprint for reopening the state’s businesses. 

While nursing homes “still need to be watched, community spread is single digit,” McMahon said. If residents continue to maintain social distancing, the virus can continue to be contained, he added.

Citing unemployment figures that have climbed into the double digits with the pandemic’s forced shutdown, the three officials agreed that restarting the region’s economies is their top priority. And though challenges abound, their counties could be well positioned to prosper. 

All conceded that some of the region’s mainstay industries—especially hospitality, restaurants, retail and tourism—will face particular challenges as the need for social distancing continues.

While those industries are likely to be among the last to recover from the pandemic’s economic blows, the Rochester region is particularly well positioned to prosper in other areas, Bello said. In their 2019 book “Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream,” authors Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson singled out the Rochester region as among the top prospects to attract high-tech industry, Bello noted.

Talent, research facilities and high-tech manufacturing expertise that institutions like Monroe County’s Rochester Institute of Technology and University of Rochester provide could be attractive to a plethora of startups and companies looking to site new ventures or relocate existing ones, McMahon and Picente concurred.

The Central New York and Mohawk Valley regions also have good prospects, they said.

Upcoming Onondaga County projects include Amazon’s planned move of a fulfillment center into a proposed 820,000-square-foot facility in Clay and the planned move of NexGen Power Systems into a $100 million state-financed facility in DeWitt. The pandemic has temporarily stalled both projects, but with reopening they can resume, McMahon said. 

Picente pointed to Oneida County’s Utica-Rome area, where the former Griffiss U.S. Air Force Base has been repurposed as the Griffiss Business and Technology Park, a sprawling 3,500-acre site divided into technology, manufacturing, aviation, education and recreation areas. The site currently has 59 tenants and room for many more. 

Given the federal government’s emphasis on repatriating offshored high-tech manufacturing, there could be many opportunities to pitch the region’s benefits to firms looking to relocate, Picente said. 

While there might opportunities aplenty, serious challenges abound, the county executives conceded. With the shutdown of many retail businesses, sales tax revenues have plummeted, depriving the counties of funds needed to mount new initiatives and support ongoing efforts. While Monroe County sales tax revenues in the first quarter rose 7 percent, they subsequently plunged to dismal levels, Bello said.

While some federal aid came with the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act, more federal money would be needed if cash-strapped local and state governments are to fully recover, he said. 

How much such aid might come is far from clear. Senate Republicans and the White House have criticized a $3 trillion aid package put forward by House Democrats as overly extravagant. And while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, has pulled back from an earlier suggestion that short-of-funds states should declare bankruptcy, he has said that discussion of any further aid can wait for at least a month and that he would approve only one more federal aid package.  

Whatever aid might or might not come, collaboration among the three upstate counties could be essential to managing the region’s economic recovery. 

The county executives also agreed that much about the way local governments do business now would have to be reimagined. 

Citing recent demonstrations and unrest in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hand of a Minneapolis police officer, Bello said any restart of local economies would have to be managed in a way that would ensure opportunities to long-disadvantaged minority communities. 

In Rochester and Monroe County now, he conceded, “we’ve got a segregated community and an educational system that doesn’t work for everyone. We’ve got to make government work for everyone.”

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. All coronavirus articles are collected here.

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