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The fight over the photonics institute’s headquarters is not about real estate. It is about power, leadership, and process.

The photonics mess 

This is just awful.

Last month, we won a national competition to host the headquarters of a photonics institute. Sounded like a big deal. Got everybody excited - especially, for some of us, because it would likely be located downtown.

The specific site of choice appeared to be the Sibley Building. University of Rochester President Joel Seligman, who was involved in the push for the institute, said it should go there. Senator Chuck Schumer said so, too.

And then came the cloud. Last Thursday morning, several high-powered local business leaders stepped in, saying: downtown, yes. But the Sibley Building? No.

That word came in a statement from the Rochester Business Alliance on behalf of a group named the Rochester Business Leaders Photonics Working Group. The "clear choice" for the headquarters and incubator facilities, they said, is Legacy Tower, which formerly housed Bausch + Lomb's headquarters.

The statement identifies the Working Group as "leaders interested in the future impact of the photonics institute on Rochester and the Finger Lakes region."

Its members, the statement says, include Wegmans CEO Danny Wegman, Eastman Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke, Paychex CEO Marty Mucci, Home Properties CEO Ed Pettinella, Pike Companies chair Thomas Judson, Jr., and Rochester Business Alliance CEO Bob Duffy.

Shortly after that, there was another statement, this one from Seligman, Representative Louise Slaughter, Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, County Executive Maggie Brooks, RIT President William Destler - and Danny Wegman (who seemed to be backing off from the Working Group's statement).

"We continue to believe that the choice of the Sibley Building is the wisest choice," they said. And they cautioned that decisions about siting - for the headquarters and for the manufacturing facilities that result - need to be made carefully, in an orderly way, and collaboratively.

Late Monday afternoon, though, it seemed to be all over. The Albany-based SUNY Polytechnic Institute - "the grant awardee and contracting entity with the Department of Defense," a press release noted - and the Business Leaders Photonics Working Group announced that the headquarters would be in Legacy Tower.

And then, a few hours later, came a statement from Wegman, Seligman, and Morelle: "Despite press reports to the contrary, no decision has been finalized on a new downtown headquarters" for the photonics institute. "We welcome SUNY Polytechnic's interest in locating a headquarters downtown and we thank them for their recommendation, which we will take under advisement. The Rochester leadership, in conjunction with Governor Cuomo, will make the final decision on where to locate the appropriate photonics facilities in our community."

Tuesday morning on WXXI, Morelle followed up with a stronger smackdown, saying that at "a handful" of local business leaders are being manipulated by SUNY Poly. And he accused SUNY Poly of wanting "to reach in and tell people of Rochester" what to do, of "trying to impose their will without our participation."

"I would respectfully hope they would back away," he said, and let Rochester make the decisions.

There's so much we don't know right now. For starters, who really is in charge of the photonics institute that Rochester won? Who gets to decide who's in charge?

And: Why did the presidents of Paychex, Kodak, Wegmans, Home Properties, and Pike side with SUNY Poly in this fight? Why did Bob Duffy do that? Did he drink some kind of Kool-Aid while he was working in Albany as lieutenant governor and decide that SUNY Poly is a better friend than Rochester and our universities?

Why did the business leaders leaders do what they did without talking to Seligman, Morelle, and other local leaders?

Questions aside, one thing seems clear: This is a fight between SUNY Poly in Albany and local leaders. That looks particularly ugly because it seems to be SUNY Poly trying to muscle out someone who has become a particularly strong community leader in Rochester and in the nine-county region: UR president Joel Seligman.

This can do great damage.

The photonics award was the result of years of tremendous effort and collaboration - 55 companies, 20 universities and laboratories, 33 other educational institutions, 16 non-profits, and representatives from 20 states - this in a region not known for always working together. Into that achievement, an Albany university and a handful of local business executives have tossed a hand-grenade. Sorry. There's just no other way to read this.

What happens next is critical.Somebody higher up - the governor?the Department of Defense? - needs to make clear immediately who's in charge.And frankly, that "who" must be local leaders, not SUNY Poly.

Maybe, of course, this isn't a SUNY Poly power grab. That institution has been doing a lot for the Rochester area. They're already involved in the tech centers in Canandaigua and the Canal Ponds Business Park in Greece. Maybe the SUNY Poly folks believe they're better leaders and we'll just screw up. If so, I think they're wrong.

This region is now working together on a wide variety of initiatives. We've been collaborating - across municipal boundaries, across county lines, despite competing interests and despite governmental structures and history that make collaborating nearly impossible. Not only do we not need to have key decisions impacting this region made by outside interests but it is counter-productive. And it is highly destructive.

Appearances to the contrary, this fight is not about real estate. It is about power, leadership, and process. The location of the photonics headquarters is the first of many decisions, and it will pale in importance to some of the others.

Where will the $610 million photonics institute money go? Which existing and new businesses and labs will do the research and the work and create the jobs? How will the institute work with the entities in other states that are partners in this effort? Will those decisions be made collaboratively, or by one person or institution?

I'm sure this mess can be cleaned up. And I'm sure everybody involved can recreate the sense of forward movement - and excitement - that we had a few weeks ago. But the Albany power grab has to stop.

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