Last week was a bad one for Long Island economic development. Several events unspooled that darken hopes for the emergence of a sustainable, non-politicized economic growth policy for the region.
On Wednesday Michael Watt, a regional business advocate of long standing, announced the cancellation of a meeting he'd planned called "Economic Development and You: Best Practices and Bottom Lines."
This came a day after Suffolk County's Industrial Development Agency replaced its executive director with a political appointee. The old director, who had resigned under pressure, effective at the end of August, is still there with a lesser title.
And the week started with Monday's story about Mirimus Inc., a biotech start-up housed at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory that might leave Long Island to secure long-term lab space.
Weeks like this show why it's so difficult to build a business on Long Island -- and why fewer people are willing to try.
Watt's program had dominated water-cooler talk for weeks. Many know Watt from high-visibility projects like the Long Island Partnership, where he headed a coalition representing corporations, universities and institutions. A press account of the cancellation cited "the barrage of criticism from state and local officials." Watt did not return my call to discuss the cancellation.
Assuming the inference is correct, why would anyone want to squelch this forum?
One word: leverage. Watt sought to create a market where business owners could meet representatives from other regions. At forums like this, representatives frequently tout less expensive places to do business. They discuss easier, better lifestyles and cite relocation incentives. Thus armed, business owners can approach local economic development officials asking for tax abatements, grants and other retention incentives.
Many companies are already leaving, with or without discussion. Recent examples include Thermo Fischer Scientific, which is shuttering its Holtsville plant, and Bed, Bath & Beyond, which will leave its Garden City and Farmingdale offices for Union City, N.J.
The traffic is largely one-way: There's a serious lack of companies starting or relocating here. But in blaming the messenger rather than dealing directly with business owners and their retention demands, local officials and critics of Watt's forum seem to have chosen the path of least resistance -- stifle information flow.
In Suffolk, the IDA's handling of its own leadership transition exemplifies much of what's wrong at the governmental level. Rather than installing a leader with proven economic development knowledge and relevant free-market skills, the financially strapped county managed, rather amazingly, to expand its payroll by adding a political fundraiser while temporarily bloating the agency.
As for Mirimus, this promising start-up ought to have been able to find space at the publicly funded Broad Hollow Bioscience Park in Farmingdale. It can't. Economic development officials in Albany, which built the park ostensibly to nurture start-ups, instead leased the entire facility to OSI Pharmaceuticals -- a $4 billion company now under Japanese ownership.
If there's a bright light in this economic darkness, it's the Ronkonkoma Hub. There, in the dismal section surrounding the railroad station, Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko is making progress in creating a mixed-use community combining housing, transportation, retail and commercial space, to be accessible through mass transit and navigable on foot. Lesko is prepared to change zoning codes to accommodate market demand. The project has real potential to produce a lively, economically vital downtown -- something Long Island desperately needs.
Lesko's way represents something else that's needed: government officials willing to do less commanding and more listening. Before our economic base evaporates, we must stop playing politics and start addressing some difficult choices. We need lower taxes, more efficient government, infrastructure improvement and zoning changes. We need to attract more venture capital money -- which happens when people who've been successful before start over with fresh ideas -- in markets where success is recognized, valued and supported.
Politics as usual is not economic development. It's economic strangulation.