In reviewing Mayor Matt Ryan’s 2011 State of the City Address, there were several points on which I wish to comment on. These are items that as a small business owner, a resident, and a homeowner, I feel something should be said about. You may agree, or not, but hopefully it will get more people involved – and thus result in a better governance for all, which is the ultimate point of the commentary.
First I think it’s most important that we get a serious and critical view of the situation the City of Binghamton is in. As Mayor Ryan stated in his opening examples, Binghamton has done very well compared to larger and far more complex cities like Camden, NJ or just in comparison like Colorado Springs. Considering how bad things could have gotten in 2010, Binghamton has been a beacon.
But before all perspective is completely lost, lets recall a couple of other facts. Since 2008 unemployment has exceeded 5%, with the average unemployment from 2004 until 2010 being roughly 5.81%. For 2010 there was an average of 8.3% unemployment in Binghamton according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While still far better than the national average it’s not good and there is another critical factor. People are leaving Binghamton.
Like all of New York State (which has continuously lost population and Federal representation since 1950) Binghamton is losing its population. In 2009 there was a popoulation of 44.4 thousand. That’s down 16% from 1990. Closer to the Ryan Administration, the population has decreased 5% since 2000. The net effect meaning that fewer people are available to pay into the taxes, open or patronize businesses.
So while things were not horrendous, they aren’t good comparing apples to apples (NJ or CO being pears or oranges or whatever).
Still credit should be given to the Ryan Administration for the jobs that were created in such a difficult economy. Bring in business to New York State is difficult enough due to the tax structure, and double so for a city so close to far lower rates of Pennsylvania. The success of businesses like VMR Electronics should be noted.
At the same time we need to keep in mind that Downtown is a ghost town. Roughly 1 – 6 storefronts are completely empty/borded over/out-of-business. Of the half a dozen businesses that opened up in Downtown in 2010, all are out of business to our knowledge. Which says nothing of the net losses of business in the area, which may be somewhat sheltered by the relocation of some businesses downtown.
There is a reason why buildings suddenly burst into flame.
Of course the solution is Binghamton University. It’s the one answer that anyone that has lived in the area will hear for almost all the problems. The University will spur innovation in job growth. The University will develop new “green” opportunities that will create jobs. Earmarks will target the University for the benefit of the area. And the students will bring in business to the ghost town of Downtown.
Just ask the average resident if earmarks or economic innovation programs at the University is helping keep jobs or improving property values. Ask the average homeowner if students are keeping them employed and a roof over their family’s head. The answer will more often not be the University than what the area politicians might make it seem.
That is not to say that Binghamton University is not vital to the well being of the area. Nor do I doubt that the University can help to springboard the creation of several new businesses and industry innovations. The point is that the University won’t do everything for everyone in the area. And too many eggs in this one basket seems to beg for a disappointment.
Case in point are the 670 students that are expected to move into downtown. This is a sign of new growth some would say. But isn’t it just canabalizing business from other areas of the city? Or Johnson City and Vestal?
20 Hawley Street lost NBT Bank, and closed, because of structural problems. With those problems fixed, and all the former tenants gone, what other market was there to tap? Considering it’s location next to the bars, students are the only logical income source, and a source that is willing to pay up for the residence.
But those students are leaving apartments from other parts of the town. Landlords are probably (I do not know with credibility) the single biggest growth industry in the City. But as students migrate, huge swaths of the City lie vacant, and have been so for years. While a few businesses will try to grab this new consumer audience, other locations in the City will die because they have lost their lifeblood.
The University and students are not the solution in my humble opinion. They are just a means to smooth out the real issues facing the area long-term. Without increased population, new businesses will not sustain.
Still the attempt to make the downtown area at least appear viable is to be commended. Because in any city, the downtown appearance and growth are critical indicators of the long-term viability of the area, more often than not. Just take a look at downtowns across New Jersey.
As for the Livable Communities Alliance, which is meant to target more housing and transportation choices, I feel it is off-base. There is plenty of housing in the city. Just as the storefronts are empty so are the houses. A 5 minute walk from downtown, 1 block off of main street, can illustrate multiple houses and apartments that are abandonded, in serious disrepair, or otherwise detrimental to the neighborhoods they are in. Forcing landlords to fix those houses, to clean up the empty structures and lots that are more garbage dump than investment property, is the key. The transportation to many of these areas already exists and is adequate. That’s the area that should have focus, in my humble opinion.
Given that the Blight Prevention & Removal Initiative, which redeveloped more than 120 blighted properties citywide, addresses most of these concerns, but not all. And while 120 homes sounds like a large number, it is not nearly enough to match the decay across the city. Given a choice between the 2 programs, forcing deadbeat landlords to improve their properties would be the choice I would make.
Of course there are many programs that were mentioned. But these were the major initiatives that were discussed. These are the focus and direction of 2011 apparently. Perhaps the intent is to focus on all that I have addressed. Perhaps, like most residents, I don’t have the actual numbers and therefore do not see the real benefits and improvements that were discussed and planned.
An example would be the General Fund. Many residents probably do not know that it now maintains $1,000,000. More probably were aware of the low ($200,000) and believe it to still be the state of affairs. Most probabaly have no clue.
So I admit my ignorance. I state clearly that I do not have every number and fact before me as I read and write this today. But what I have said are not the thoughts and observations of a lone resident/homeowner. It’s not the first time these same concerns and critiques have been made in public conversation away from the world of politics.
Bottomline, until Binghamton is giving business a reason to enter the city, there will be a persistent decay – increasing the burden on those that remain. Likewise, students and their housing will not fix the situation. Residents need a reason to keep their home, rather than sell it and move to a warmer state, or to a state with far lower taxes. Landlords need to be forced to improve the vacant properties and maintain the rest. That combination will help lift a part of the burden on the rest of the homeowners.
Time is short. As Mayor Ryan stated,
“the State now projects a 40% increase in the City’s annual pension contributions, a hike of $2.3 million. Second, we expect our health insurance payments to spike another 15-18%, or approximately $1.6 million. These two increases alone represent a $3.9 million projected budget gap, and we have not even started talking about other potential cost increases.”
IF the core issues don’t get resolved, neither will any other issue. The Ryan Administration is addressing some of this, and having limited success. But I believe that there is too much distraction in “green” initiatives and other buzzword topics. At the same time, the citizens need to be far more proactive in letting politicians know exactly what they want done.
Perhaps that last factor alone may be the most important key to improving the city for everyone.
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