Mixed feelings in Canton, Potsdam over Cuomo’s StartUP NY plan
Saturday, May 3, 2014 - 8:03 am

By CRAIG FREILICH

Amid optimism and skepticism on the part of local elected officials, SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Canton have begun promoting their role in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s initiative offering new and expanding companies 10 years of tax-free operation.

Canton Town Supervisor David Button suggests the governor’s “Start-Up NY” economic development approach could pay off.

“When you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got,” he said.

“That is especially true of economic development initiatives. The StartUp New York initiative is an ‘outside-the-box’ program that is designed to create new jobs and draw other jobs from other parts of the country, so it's worth a try. North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas have been taking jobs from New York for years. Turn-about is fair play.”

Potsdam Mayor Stephen Yurgartis is a bit more jaundiced about sweeping government economic development plans.

“I find all of these government economic development plans awkward because they use public money to play favorites among businesses. In the case of Start-Up NY, I am particularly concerned,” Yurgartis said.

“It not only gives away our local tax revenue, it also takes our decision-making role and gives it away to the local college president. I hope the program brings in some development, but we have to recognize that there will be hundreds of Start-Up locations throughout the state, each of which can accommodate many businesses. The North Country will have some steep competition.”

Finding the Right Match

Matching up with the right business could be a bonanza for SUNY Canton and the community, Button said.

“In a college community like Canton, the synergy that you can achieve when a high-tech industry taps the intellectual resources of a school like SUNY-Canton can be incredible. We want to encourage that. The jobs they bring will eventually add to our tax base and bring people to our community, adding to the overall quality of life. It’s not a perfect plan, but at least it gives local communities with state colleges something new in their tool box,” Button said.

The state colleges are charged with representing the governor’s program to businesses and the public at the behest of state officials and probably have little choice but to “get on board” themselves.

SUNY Potsdam’s list of “properties” available for development has been approved by Albany and offers are being sought and received from businesses interested in investigating the possibilities.

Their list includes the third floor of Carson Hall, plus 43.5 acres at Lehman Hall across from the campus, and 24.5 acres at NATCO Park, behind the campus.

SUNY Canton has a list, too, and it has received preliminary approval, soon to have the go-ahead from Albany as inquiries are already coming in.

Job Creation Required

According to the governor’s program, the schools at Potsdam and Canton, as state university colleges, are to solicit business from new or expanding companies by enticing them with leased land or office space at or near the schools, allowing them to operate for 10 years without the usual burdens of property taxes, business taxes, sales taxes, or state income taxes for their employees.

Some restrictions apply, such as a requirement to come within 75 or 80 percent of job creation goals. These must be new locations with new jobs, not moving jobs from elsewhere.

But without new property tax income, what is the benefit to a community that must supply services to the new business and its workers?

“They will be bringing business opportunities with them. They will be shopping downtown, buying homes, creating jobs,” said SUNY Potsdam’s Director of Strategic Alliances John Wicke, who is leading SUNY Potsdam’s effort.

“I think it’s an opportunity for business and colleges to collaborate, and create synergy between the academic community and entrepreneurship related to the academic mission,” said Wicke. It’s a chance for colleges “to broaden their mission to support the economic development effort and build entrepreneurial spirit here on campus to create economic opportunity.”

SUNY Canton Executive Director for University Relations Lenore VanderZee said that there is community benefit “in matching colleges and universities with business to create a workforce with industry, particularly in areas that are economically hard hit, such as ours.”

Internships, Learning Opportunities

Wicke and VanderZee also point to internships with the companies and other learning opportunities for students, and other opportunities for faculty that could be specified in a company’s application, which requires some furtherance of the college’s mission on the part of the business.

“Businesses win, campuses win, and communities win,” VanderZee said.

The spots on SUNY Canton’s list of properties available includes 10,000 square feet in Wicks Hall and three plots of college land along State Rt. 68. It also provisionally includes the Canton Industrial Building and Ogdensburg Commerce Park.

In addition to the college property, “we’re working with the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency in places like the Ogdensburg Commerce Park. They’re not officially in our plan because they are not under our control, but they might be able to expand what we can offer,” said SUNY Canton’s VanderZee. But those areas would not be actively promoted by SUNY Canton “until there is a business that is interested and eligible. If one comes up, we can amend the plan” to include provisions that guarantee more control by the college.

VanderZee said the off-campus Canton and Ogdensburg buildings can be marketed through more avenues provided by the county Industrial Development Agency and the Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority, but any tax breaks through the Start-Up NY plan cannot be combined with other state tax incentives that usually would be available through the IDA and OBPA.

VanderZee explained that while land that belongs to the colleges will remain property-tax free, any improvement that a company makes, such as a building, will be taxable “and has the potential to increase the tax base.

“The campus has great leeway in lease arrangements or other arrangements,” she said, and in return “we expect support for our internships, equipment and scholarships.”

The status of the land would not change at the end of the 10-year period. It will remain tax-exempt college property whether the business stays or not.

Fast Approval at Potsdam

SUNY Potsdam got quick approval of its property list and has taken inquiries “from at least eight businesses from wide range of fields interested in partnering with the college, a wide range of employment opportunities,” Wicke said, one from Italy and some from out of state, and one application “from an expanding business in New York State.”

“It’s generating a lot of interest that could be a huge deal for the North Country region. Ten jobs here is significant while in Rochester or Albany it would not be so significant,” he said.

But Wicke says they are not simply waiting for inquiries to come in.

“We’re marketing this aggressively. We’re targeting 40,000 alumni around the country, particularly entrepreneurs and business owners.”

As for costs of the program to the colleges, Wicke said that there will be no substantial costs to SUNY Potsdam of running the program “other than staff time,” including his salary, and that the state is providing no funds for that, so those costs will remain with the college.

But he said the state and SUNY in particular are providing things like legal services to those administering the program.

And he said the value of the program to the college will be in “helping students prepare for the workforce.”