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The XX Files 2.22.06 

Dust bowling for dollars

The people are leaving. They're packing up their cars and pulling their kids out of school, and they're leaving and leaving and leaving. They're looking for work. An average of nearly 1.7 million people has left the state in the past nine years, according to the Manhattan Institute. That's nearly 200,000 --- almost as much as the Dust Bowl migration --- every year. They're driving away, going west, heading south, following jobs, finding new homes.

New Yorkers are the New Oakies; so many have moved that the state has lost 10 Congressional representatives since the early 1980s. And upstate? Well, it's even worse here. We're the Oakiest of the New Oakies.

Those left behind fall into three categories: the Lucky, the Hopeful, and the Luckless. The Lucky have somewhere to live and jobs that sustain them. That doesn't mean they don't also see the writing on the wall. Some Luckys fear the next big round of layoffs. Others run businesses that rely on the people living here. When people move away it might be time to close up shop and move on, too.

The Hopeful are waiting for their fortunes to improve. Maybe one spouse lost his job and they're scraping by, loathe to pull the kids out of school and move to a more affordable neighborhood. They're staying here, by God, but it's not going to be easy.

The Luckless have few options in a local economy that's tanking and a global economy that trades in advanced technical and communication skills. Nearly 40 percent of our children live in poverty, less than half of our students won't graduate in time, and adults, when they can find jobs, are barely able to cover transportation, rent, and child care.

Everyone has ideas. County Executive Maggie Brooks wants to emulate Onondaga County's less expensive, streamlined social services programs. Mayor Duffy talks about increasing security. Some leaders hope Renaissance Square --- the planned arts, transportation, and education complex downtown --- will save us, just like the ferry was supposed to.

But these approaches are dancing around the main issue: jobs. The Brooks approach to social services --- slash first, ask questions later --- sends the message that recipients are lazy sots who want to be taken care of. But that's not true. People want to work. And reducing support services like mental-health care and addiction counseling makes it hard for recipients to get their lives together.

OnondagaCounty's system is succeeding because its premise is that people want to work, journalist Benjamin Wachs reports in a recent Messenger Post column. He interviewed OnondagaCounty's Department of Social Services Commissioner Dave Sutkowy, who says working can be expensive. Sutkowy kept in place social-service programs that supported workers, and Onondaga is now reaping the benefits. "The welfare benefit is offset by the individual's own earnings, so the public expenditures are decreased," Sutkowy told Wachs.

Mayor Duffy is right to worry about safety, but he also knows that some crime has roots in the lack of solid, well-paying jobs. Adding more police and other measures are just part of the picture. Let's hope he's persuading his friends in business --- and his new friend Maggie Brooks --- to create a real, effective economic-development plan for the region. And let's hope he's bringing the same urgency to this problem that he brought to stanching the ferry's bleeding.

Renaissance Square, some say, promises an economic rejuvenation that will transform our community. But is it just another ferry? Do we know what kinds of jobs --- other than construction --- the complex will generate?

Normally this is the kind of project I'd be all over like a cheap suit --- I'm a long-time Safdie fan, and it was Rochester's arts and culture that drew me here in the first place. Today, however, with Rochester in such disrepair, I wonder: who will pay for the theaters? The government will fund Ren Square's transportation and college portions, but not the two theaters --- one large and one small.

A new plan calling for the formation of a "United Way for the Arts" bundles the Ren Square theaters with a third, mid-sized theater to be located near the EastmanSchool. The total price tag of this three-theater plan is $172 million, much of which would be raised from private sources.

I'm no expert in how large multiuse facilities affect ailing city centers, but I'd love to become one. Ren Square stakeholders should publish their market analyses so we can all be informed supporters. I know such research was done in the late 1990s, but having learned our lesson from the example of the poorly-planned-for ferry, Ren Square leaders would be well-advised to do some new market research. A lot has changed here in the past decade.

Plus, I'd like to hear about the new arts facilities in other mid-sized cities like Dayton, Ohio, and Newark, New Jersey. Did private donors fund them? Do throngs of people jam the theaters every evening? Even more crucial, did these facilities spawn other development and employment?

Further, what does current market research say about how people here will respond to Ren Square? How much did area residents spend on the arts in 2005? How much do they plan to spend this year? Is anyone else tightening their belt as much as my family is?

It's hard to plan for the future when the jobs continue to leave and the people continue to leave. Whatever we do about the future, we can't leave it up to chance.

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