Last week, Governor Cuomo announced the award of half a billion dollars in state economic assistance to Rochester and the Finger Lakes region. That is a nice Christmas gift. Just how great it is will depend on how much value we and the region can gain from it. The question we should ask ourselves is, will we spend the money or invest it? How can we best invest it and what will be the return on our investment? The plan as presented by the Finger Lakes Economic Development Council includes four pillars: Optics, Photonics and Imaging, Agriculture and Food Production, and Next-Generation Manufacturing and Technology. Each of them are great goals and if done correctly could yield outstanding results. At Optimation we endorse these focus areas.
Optimation Technology supports manufacturing all over the United States and around the world from engineering and fabrication centers in Rochester, New York. In today’s economy it’s important to be diversified and a part of our diversification is geographic so we travel out of area and take on projects worldwide. There was a time when manufacturing in Rochester was much more robust. Rochester and upstate New York have a long successful history in manufacturing. Rochester was the birthplace of Eastman Kodak, Xerox and Bausch and Lomb. Rochester was a worldwide center of excellence for optics manufacturing. Rochester had more patents per capita than almost any other city. Rochester was a major exporter of manufactured goods. Over the years, things changed. Kodak went through bankruptcy and downsized from 65,000 to less than 4,000. The total number of manufacturing companies and the total number of manufacturing jobs have declined dramatically over the past two decades.
Is there a bright future for manufacturing in Rochester? We have high hopes that will be the case. Part of the answer lies in what the Finger Lakes Economic Development Council chooses to do with the half billion dollars. We’ve seen a lot of stories of government money invested in the wrong companies or the wrong technology. Taken as a whole, government has a spotty record when they attempt to empower or run businesses. Eastern European businesses weren’t highly productive during the communist era. And we all know the outcomes of government investment in Solyndra and A123 Systems, which both shut down after hundreds of millions of dollars of government aid leaving thousands of people out of work. In the last week, we have seen the closing of Muller Quaker Diary in Batavia after an investment of twenty million dollars in NYS grants and tax credits. The risk for the Finger Lakes half billion seems high.
But not all government driven systems have failed. We had pretty impressive results from NASA in the 60s and 70s. Not only did they get successfully to the moon on schedule but a lot of new technology was developed and commercialized because of their research. Egyptian pharaoh Cheops appears to have been pretty successful four or five thousand years ago when he built the great pyramid; the improvements in farming and technology that were the outcomes of this effort produced a great civilization that thrived for centuries.
I have high confidence in the skills of the Finger Lakes Economic Development Council and trust that they will emulate Cheops and not take a Solyndra-like path when they select the companies and projects to invest in with the half billion dollar ESD funds. We are excited about the revitalization of Rochester manufacturing in 2016 and beyond.