In the space of a few dizzying hours on Thursday, three buses full of foreign trade officials got to see some of Long Island's best hopes for a stable and prosperous high-tech economy: from the site of what will be the brightest light source on Earth to a new building at Stony Brook University that could produce astonishing breakthroughs in communications.
By the time they headed back to Manhattan, the officials had made history, as the largest trade mission ever in New York. They also had made a lot of connections with Long Island businesses and research leaders and learned what we already knew: that our Island has significant strengths. We've got a strong workforce; a unique array of public and private research institutions doing world-class science that could spin off world-class companies; excellent schools; an enviable lifestyle - oh, and proximity to the greatest city in the world.
There's a good chance that this visit will bring long-term benefits for our regional economy. But only if we build a unified economic development structure with the ability to nurture these budding relationships.
The visit, orchestrated by New York's economic development arm, Empire State Development, brought some gatekeepers of the global economy into direct contact with Long Island businesses. And it took them to three of our major research centers: The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research of North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Stony Brook University. They didn't get to see Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, but they did hear from its president, Bruce Stillman.
Some links to the future
At each stop, they met not only with the leaders of the institutions - Kevin Tracey of Feinstein, Sam Aronson of Brookhaven, and Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. of Stony Brook - but with business executives, the heads of Long Island business organizations, and our top elected officials, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi and Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy.
It was a flurry of business card-swapping that could lead to direct investment by foreign countries in Long Island businesses, to decisions by foreign firms to locate here, to increased exports, and to new research links between our institutions and those abroad.
At Feinstein, the trade officials heard from a panel on the life sciences. Then it was back on the buses to Brookhaven, where they toured the national synchrotron light source (soon to be replaced by a source 10,000 times brighter, in a site across the street) and the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, whose exploration of the tiniest particles of matter may hold the key to the nation's - and the world's - energy future.
Later, they visited Stony Brook's shiny new Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology, the first building to open in Stony Brook's research and development park. It has a chance to be a global leader in jaw-dropping, gee-whiz communication technologies that we can barely imagine now.
Right next door, the university is putting up the Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center, built to the highest standards of energy efficiency. It will be a vital research hub in such areas as better batteries and a smarter power grid.
These facilities are crucial, because our future economy depends on leading in communications, energy and the life sciences. Toward that end, the connections Long Island leaders made with the trade officials could bear real fruit. And Empire State Development deserves a tip of the cap for making it happen.
But that still leaves the nagging question: In the wake of the news earlier this year that OSI Pharmaceuticals is leaving, can Long Island continue to rely on our current economic development structure?
That includes Empire State Development, which does try to help the Island, but also has to look out for other parts of the state (such as Westchester, where OSI is going); the two county industrial development agencies, and town IDAs that do cooperate, but also compete. Our answer: We need a new structure - preferably a single regional voice.
Getting there won't be easy. The towns that have IDAs won't want to give them up. Nor will the counties. And creating a regional entity would require Albany action, which is as hopeless as it is oxymoronic.
A Suffolk summit
The week before the trade mission, Levy made a bow toward better coordination on economic development, by calling together leaders of companies and organizations. Those conversations could help - but only if Levy keeps working to get those leaders to meet regularly, set up functioning committees, and coordinate on an ongoing basis.
If Thursday's encouraging trade mission and Levy's mini-summit in Suffolk are to amount to more than just a couple of random sparks, everyone who promotes economic development on Long Island is going to have to remain focused on one goal - building an efficient and vigilant economic development powerhouse for Long Island - and one rallying cry: No more OSIs. hN