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A Boom, Not a Bust

 

For years, the Capital Region has wanted to be Austin, Texas, the spunky little capital city with a major tech boom.

But how willing are we to commit to avoiding Austin’s mistakes? That’s the open question being asked by “High-Tech Growth and Community Well-Being: Lessons Learned from Austin, Texas” (http://cwig.albany.edu/Austincasestudy.htm). The report is a result of interviews with many of Austin’s big movers and shakers during its tech boom and after, from CEOs to government officials, and was published by the Nonprofit Executive Roundtable, a project of the University at Albany’s Rockefeller College.

Its message is dramatic. Basically, the boom left so many people behind that it shot itself in the foot. The rapid population influx and booming economy drove up the cost of living. Little to no effort was put into helping people upgrade their skills for the new high-tech jobs. And people who understood the needs of the poor and disadvantaged were not included in any of the major planning efforts.

As a result, racial disparities increased, the poverty level stayed high despite an increase in average wages, and low-wage earners had serious trouble finding affordable housing. At least one semiconductor company decided to expand outside the state because they were “limited by the availability of labor.” Looking back, that company’s CFO told researchers that his company had been “silly” and limited its profits by not “properly invest[ing] in the human capital.”

Nonprofits—whether in Austin or the Capital Region—not only have to deal with the effects on the region’s more vulnerable populations of a rapid increase in cost of living; they are also the ones with the knowledge and skills in workforce development, affordable housing management and community planning that are needed to avoid the problems Austin faced.

Austin’s experience tells us loud and clear that these groups should not just be allowed at the table because it’s the right thing to do. They should be invited, solicited for their input, specialized knowledge and connections.

The people who are fighting for a community benefits agreement with the Albany Convention Center (and those who have at least floated the idea for the Luther Forest Tech Park) should not be having to fight to have a CBA exist. Much of what they are asking for should be assumed to be part of these projects, and essential to the project’s long-term success. The neighborhood activists and nonprofit leaders should be hammering out the how, not the if.

This is big stuff.

Now, this report came out last May. But it’s now, as the authors determinedly shop it around, that we’re going to see if its message takes. A report is worth nothing but a grant to its authors until someone changes their way of doing something based on it.

Judith Saidel, founder of the Nonprofit Executive Roundtable and a co-author of the report, is optimistic. The report has gotten universally enthusiastic response, she says (at least in places where they have been invited to present it), and new connections are already being forged in response. The roundtable has a seed grant from the Bender Foundation to start a Tech Valley Civic Forum to work on implementing its lessons. Chambers of commerce from Albany, Schenectady, and Southern Saratoga County have expressed interest, as has the Tech Valley Chamber Coalition, and groups of consultants and nonprofits. In every group that listens to the presentation, “we can see other connected audiences right behind them,” says Saidel.

Of course, the co-authors are just starting to get to government officials, and have not yet reached out to state and federal representatives like Joe Bruno and John Sweeney. In a world where economic development efforts tend to involve massive public subsidy, the commitment of folks like these will make or break the effort.

Meanwhile, many of the nonprofits on the front lines of housing and business development are trying to take the report to heart, even while they assume they may be the only ones who do so. At a meeting on Sept. 13, representatives from housing and financial nonprofits serving low-income folks around the region met on to follow up on what they’d heard in a presentation of the report.

They expressed frustration at still feeling like the Nonprofit Business Council of the Tech Valley Chamber Coalition was mostly involved in “soft” projects like connecting volunteers with groups, and not brought into the heart of economic development planning. They shook their heads at the idea that turf wars and ugly politics could be set aside to make this massive a change in the way business is done. Halfway through the meeting they were already talking about needing to create a new table because they didn’t expect to sit at the existing one. They sounded tired.

“The conventional way of doing economic development has a very long history,” acknowledges Saidel. “It will take a sustained effort to change it.” She mentions an additional interview she did since the report with Pike Powers, the chair of the Texas Techonology Initiative, who played a central role in the project that launched Austin’s boom. “He emphasized the necessity of remembering how difficult these changes are,” reports Saidel. “This region does not have a stellar history of regional and inclusive planning. I think everyone would acknowledge that. There is an urgency to reverse this course.”

Powers’ other major comment to Saidel was that to make such an effort successful, everyone, especially politicians, need to leave their egos at the door. How true. How difficult.

But it seems that many of the nonprofits who could contribute deeply to a regional planning process will need to see some clear evidence of that before they can trust that they will be included.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

 

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