Our Erie Canal Moment
By Seth Pinsky, President of NYCEDC
If one looks at the landscape both nationally and internationally, one cannot help but notice that New York City, though still the world capital of business and finance, faces increasing competition for its crown. Cities around the world are not only increasingly competing for the same talent and companies as New York, but are investing billions of dollars in infrastructure that will make them even more desirable than they are today. Meanwhile, as national economies in regions such as South America and Asia grow at a more rapid pace than the national economy of the United States, it is less and less certain that, in the 21st Century, New York will be able to rely to the same extent on the competitive advantage that it enjoyed for much of the 20th Century when it was the unquestioned business capital of the unchallenged global economic superpower. Finally, as technology continues to evolve, barriers to entry in fields in which New York businesses have traditionally dominated have been lowered, thereby making it easier for new entrants—many from outside of New York—to challenge our home-grown champions.
All real threats, for sure. However, the good news for New Yorkers is that we as a City have faced dramatic challenges before. And, more encouragingly, each time we have, we have managed not only to meet those challenges head-on, but, in all cases, have managed to overcome them and emerge a better and stronger city on the other side.
Take the early 19th century as an example. Then, New York was locked in a heated competition with a number of other cities, including Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore, to become our young country’s dominant East Coast port. Though, at the time, New York had clear advantages—a vast harbor, an already-diverse population and a seafaring tradition that, even in those early days, was already rich—the cities with which New York was competing had advantages of their own and it was anything but a foregone conclusion that New York would emerge with the title.
Erie Canal, opened 1825
New York, though, had an ace up its sleeve. Specifically, it had a major development project championed by New York’s visionary leader, DeWitt Clinton. The project, which was unabashedly ambitious, was mockingly referred to by contemporary commentators as “Clinton’s Folly” or “Clinton’s Ditch”. By the time it opened, though, the project, to which we refer today by its proper name, the Erie Canal, proved to be nothing short of transformative, connecting New York to the nation’s rapidly growing interior. Within just a few short years of the Canal’s opening, New York City had effectively won the race with its sister cities on the Eastern Seaboard, securing for itself not only the title of dominant East Coast shipping center, but, eventually, dominant national center of commerce, industry, finance and media.
Today, New York City faces another Erie Canal moment. We once again find ourselves in a positive competitive position, but, given the key ingredients for dominance in the 21st Century, we can no longer assume with absolute certainty that these advantages will sustain our world-beating position indefinitely. This is why Mayor Bloomberg has directed his economic development team to think big and bold—to think on a scale that is no less ambitious than that of the Erie Canal.
And what does an “Erie Canal for the 21st Century” look like? As important as large-scale infrastructure projects are in this new century—and New York, with its $27 billion, four-year capital budget is betting about as big as it ever has on these sorts of projects—looking ahead to the next 100 years, we believe that the real key to success is leadership in technology and innovation. And, looking around the world at what are today the great centers of technology and innovation, what virtually all of them share in common is a critical mass of great academic centers specializing in the applied sciences.
Here in New York, we are blessed with some of the world’s best centers of higher education—centers with which the Bloomberg Administration has worked and continues to work closely. However, given the scale of our City’s economy (at the heart of a metropolitan region with a gross metropolitan product roughly equal to the GDP of India) and given the scale of our ambition (to be the global leader in technology and innovation in the 21st Century), what we have heard in hundreds of discussions with business and civic leaders is that we just do not have enough of this kind of activity. Enter one of Mayor Bloomberg’s signature economic development initiatives: Applied Sciences NYC.
This initiative, which was launched by Deputy Mayor Steel and Mayor Bloomberg in December 2010, challenged our City’s leading educational institutions and those from outside of the City to propose a major expansion within New York, in exchange for which, the City would provide capital, land and technical assistance. Less than three weeks ago, we announced the selection of our first winner: an historic partnership between Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, which is to build a new, world-class applied sciences and engineering campus on Roosevelt Island.
Over the next three decades, we estimate that this facility will generate more than $23 billion in economic activity, spinning out hundreds of new businesses and creating thousands of new jobs. In fact, at full-scale, the campus will nearly double the number of full-time, graduate engineering students here in the City. Additionally, the campus will help to ensure that the City remains a hub of innovation, increasing access to talent and fostering entrepreneurship for generations, thereby connecting the City’s legacy industries—including media, fashion and financial services—to new ways of doing business, and encouraging the formation of new companies in industries about which today we can only dream. Moving forward, we hope to be able to make announcements about additional winners of this very important competition.
As was the case with the Erie Canal nearly 200 years ago, Applied Sciences NYC has the potential to create competitive advantages for the City that will carry us forward for decades and perhaps centuries to come. By following in the footsteps of DeWitt Clinton and continuing to invest in the City’s future on a grand scale, under the leadership of Mayor Bloomberg, we are both following in footsteps that should be familiar to New Yorkers versed in our City’s history and simultaneously ensuring that our City’s best days remain ahead of us.