COLUMN: Skepticism is good for progress in the FLX

Economic development is possible in Seneca Falls.

I wanted to lead this column with that statement.

Parts of rural, Upstate New York have struggled for several decades, as jobs — particularly those in manufacturing — exited the state and country in search of less-expensive places to do business. Our problems are undeniably tied to a state that historically has chosen more government as a solution instead of letting solutions occur naturally.

Taxes have risen, businesses have left, and well, this isn’t news to anyone reading today’s edition of the Finger Lakes Times.

The decision by Seneca Falls to fund a development corporation that will be tasked with advertising and selling this expensive place to do business speaks to how deeply people want to see economic growth.

Born out of necessity, like an Industrial Development Agency, local development corporations sell a difficult-to-market business landscape. There’s no shortage of opportunity, but without the state changing how it does business and without having a team of people dedicated to the cause, selling these rural communities, and bringing businesses back through a variety of means, the development that is so desperately needed cannot happen.

Listening to those who are skeptical of development corporations like the SFDC offers an intriguing insight into the socioeconomic battle taking place in rural communities.

Several people rolled their eyes when they heard the news that the SFDC had “revamped” its marketing with a new slogan and logo.

A particular part of the SFDC’s new message received mixed reviews — the concept of branding and reaching beyond our current borders.

For some, it’s the concept of appealing to people and businesses outside their own immediate circle that’s worthy of an eyeroll. Many of those same people laughed at the idea of Seneca Falls, the birthplace of Women’s Rights, having even regional appeal.

Skepticism is an important part of any political process. It ensures that the ideas and policies being drafted can stand the test. The line between skepticism and cynicism, though, is razor thin.

Skepticism is constructive. Cynicism is destructive and oftentimes contradicting.

Being skeptical of a development corporation tasked with an incredibly difficult mission is one thing. Being skeptical of individual plans carried out by the organization is understandable. When it ultimately has an impact on the entire community — and even those surrounding it — the stakes necessitate a level of skepticism.

Cynicism is what I see out of some people who scoff at the prospect of growth in a place such as Seneca Falls. Their own cynicism for what the area has become over the last several decades has clouded their vision for what this community — and others like it — could ultimately morph into with the proper leadership.

Using the SFDC as an example, it seems incredibly cynical to argue “Who’s gonna wanna come here?!” — as many have over the last several years — while simultaneously saying, “We need [insert name of person/group here] to get out of the way so people and businesses will come!”

The irony is that these two sentiments are often spoken in a flurry together, as people and elected officials scramble to solve our economic and business development issues. The first question implies that no one wants to come to start a business while the second implies that businesses are lining up to come, if only it weren’t for those pesky political and community leaders getting in the way.

Both of those issues are very real things in small communities where nostalgia dominates. People look back at the days when manufacturing was king and all that was needed were a high school diploma and a good work ethic for a 30-40 year career at any dozen businesses in or around Seneca Falls.

That isn’t the case any more, but it’s equal parts unrealistic and misguided to expect a return to some past norm. “Our history. Your future,” the slogan reads proudly. The new plan includes innovation, change, and aggressive marketing. It encompasses old and new ideas — driving growth in the process and provides college graduates, as well as those just entering the work force. A diverse economy that doesn’t just rely on one industry, like in the past.

It’s the introduction of a new era for Seneca Falls: Skeptics welcomed and cynics — hopefully — converted into informed participants in a local economy that did them wrong in years past.

This column originally appeared in the Finger Lakes Times. Read all of Josh’s columns from the Finger Lakes Times here.

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