Planning for Sustainable Regional Economic Development

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Tompkins Weekly 9/5/11
by Gay Nicholson

Governor Cuomo recently announced a new approach to solving the state’s growing economic problems. With the formation of 10 regional economic development councils, Cuomo hopes to channel all state and federal resources for job creation and business development through a more coordinated, appropriate, and community-based framework for growth. The Southern Tier regional council will be co-chaired by Cornell President David Skorton and Corning CEO Tom Tranter, and includes 30 municipal, academic, and business reps from the 8 counties in the region.

According to their public input survey, they want to develop a “5-year plan for long-term, sustainable regional economic development” based on “community-driven strategies for job creation” that “comprehensively address regional needs and priorities.” The structure of the survey reveals assumptions that university-based tech transfer, gas drilling, agriculture, tourism, air and interstate transport, and existing global businesses are the primary engines for economic development and the likely sites for investment of public tax dollars. Absent from the survey are questions related to the elements of a truly sustainable economy or the distribution of jobs and investment across income classes.

Fundamental to a sustainable economy is the preservation of natural systems – our underlying life support that allows human societies to function. Also fundamental to the concept of sustainability is a focus on enabling the well being of everyone. If Cuomo and the regional councils are serious about long-term sustainability, they need to abandon the failed models of growth capitalism and globalization that tend to exploit natural systems, funnel wealth to elites, and utterly depend upon cheap fossil fuel. Designing for a sustainable and just economy is going to require radically different thinking on the part of the council members, who mostly represent institutions and industries following conventional economic models (which tend to engage in wishful thinking when it comes to calculations involving Earth’s resilience or the Market’s wisdom about fair distribution).

How we should approach the challenge of designing for a sustainable economy has a lot to do with what we perceive the future to be like. Sustainability advocates point to the negative trends around climate change, more costly methods of fossil fuel extraction, collapse of global markets, and dwindling global water supplies. This leads us to put the focus on rebuilding local economic networks with a strong emphasis on food and energy security, and protection of fresh water supplies. A focus on restoring our regional food system and developing fossil-free energy sources would put many people to work while safeguarding the core economy needed for our basic existence. The greatest resilience would come if we made sure that food and clean energy jobs were filled by those shut out of technical or higher education careers. Everyone’s long-term interests will be protected when we design our economy to distribute ownership and profits throughout society. Historically, the upstate economy consisted of many modest-sized, locally-owned and interwoven enterprises. This supported a rich fabric of civic life, inventiveness, and pioneering social movements.  

It might not be considered glamorous to invest in small enterprises, worker-owned cooperatives, and local food and energy systems, but the concept of sustainability isn’t glamorous, merely pragmatic and fair. Spending our limited tax dollars on infrastructure and enterprises that rely on cheap fossil fuel and market demand in other countries is likely to be a poor investment given the trends we face. Putting a broad range of people to work in supplying our basic needs within our region will buffer us from perturbations in the global economy and prevent friction caused by high unemployment and destitution. High tech will certainly be a part of our future, but our universities, governments, and financial institutions need to make equal efforts to foster an economy that creates ownership and decision making power among people outside of the educated elite. 

The regional councils are asking for public input via their online survey until September 15 ( Though the survey is not designed to ask questions related to sustainability and social justice, there is plenty of space to write comments and provide feedback to the members of the council. Please take time to visit the site and share your thoughts and guidance on the choices we face in how to spend our public tax dollars and create an economy that works for all of us. Or join in person on September 8 from 6-8 pm at the Womens Community Building (register to speak via 

Gay Nicholson is President of Sustainable Tompkins and Founding President of the Green Resource Hub.

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