Ryan McMahon has a vision: A bustling Inner Harbor, booming suburbs north of Syracuse and an influx of people that Onondaga County hasn’t seen in at least half a century.
The Inner Harbor could be blanketed in green space, residents and visitors, and attractions such as a food hall and a rooftop bar. More suburban town centers could be thriving. More county residents could get higher paying jobs.
Much of that vision — the jobs, the people, the housing — is tied up in the county getting a new semiconductor fabrication plant. If a tenant uses all 1,250 acres at White Pine Commerce Park, that could create 25,000 new jobs, draw 50,000 to 100,000 new residents and at least 10,000 to 20,000 new units of housing, McMahon said.
The bigger the chip plant, the more jobs, the more people and the more need to places for them to live.
“It’s not going to seem real until they’re like, ‘Holy s—. He was telling the truth,’” McMahon said in a sit-down interview this month.
McMahon’s vision is a grand one for a county that hasn’t seen growth on such a scale in more than five decades.
The region is expected to grow whether or not the county lands a chip factory lands; That’s because of investments in technology, logistics and advanced manufacturing, according to McMahon and CenterState CEO executive Andrew Fish. But a semiconductor factory would bring billions of dollars in investment that little else can.
There are hurdles. A deal with one semiconductor manufacturer appears to be on a knife’s edge. Other manufacturers have previously picked other plant sites over White Pine.
“The emotional aspect of chasing down this opportunity and the highs and lows are enough to put you into a straitjacket,” McMahon said.
The Inner Harbor: ‘That’s where you’re gonna build’
McMahon closely links the semiconductor factory – and the region’s simultaneous growth – to the recently approved aquarium.
“What’s disappointing about the aquarium project, how it got dragged out, is that this was never a standalone project,” McMahon said.
The aquarium provides a draw to the Inner Harbor, where McMahon wants semiconductor factory employees to live. McMahon has shown at least one semiconductor industry executive the Inner Harbor and aquarium plans to sell them on coming to the region.
If the county gets a chip factory, McMahon believes the Inner Harbor neighborhood will be key to building the infrastructure and capacity for Onondaga County to support its success.
“That’s where you’re gonna build,” McMahon said. “That’s where the people are going to live.”
The aquarium is just one of a few proposals for the Inner Harbor.
The COR Development Company has long-owned much of the waterfront property but has struggled to push forward development in the last decade.
CEO Catherine Johnson and Steven L. Aiello, the company’s director of community and external relations, said its new proposal adds more housing units than past proposals.
The firm’s most recent plan calls for 600 units, including mixed-income and senior housing. It includes a rooftop bar and food hall rather than another hotel. Cor plans to develop its property in phases to match the county’s growth.
Johnson said the process is like creating a neighborhood from scratch.
“There’s a lot of discussion over what this potential chip factory would do and how that could certainly be a big population driver,” Aiello said. “That’s one of the reasons we started to retool some of these buildings to add more units and create more density.”
A lot of the land around the lake, except for COR’s, is publicly owned. The state Legislature earlier this year transferred to the city two piers that jut into the Inner Harbor. The city-county planning agency is currently coming up with proposals about what to do with the land.
Some of that land could be re-envisioned as a park, according to Dan Kwasnowski, the director of the Syracuse-Onondaga County Planning Agency. Kwasnowski said the agency is still in planning phases and taking public input about what the land could be.
McMahon hopes activity on the waterfront will push Destiny USA to develop property on Solar Street into more housing, he said.
“Destiny’s going to have to decide what they want to do,” McMahon said. “Are you going to be developers again? Or are you going to sell this?”
The county executive expects multiple announcements about development in the Inner Harbor in the next two months, he said.
“When you look at the Inner Harbor, it’s a lot of land right there next to Franklin Square, next to the lakefront, close to downtown,” McMahon said. “Tough to see why young people aren’t gonna want to just jump all over that.”
‘Every town, every village, every city neighborhood’
Growth will exacerbate an already critical need, according to McMahon and CenterState’s Fish: housing.
Fish said investments in fields like transportation and logistics, tech and advanced manufacturing could grow the area’s economy. Landing a semiconductor fabrication plant would only add pressure to build more housing.
“Every town, every village, every city neighborhood will need either rehabilitated housing units or new housing units,” McMahon said.
Nearly 3,000 units of housing developments have either been announced, pitched or proposed in Onondaga County in the last two months, including:
- Great Northern Mall (500 units)
- Lakeshore Village (500 units)
- COR’s housing proposals sent to legislators (600 units)
- The Syracuse Developmental Center (up to 600 units)
- District East (500 units)
- United Group of Companies’ Cicero development (278 units)
Some of that housing, like the Lakeshore Village and Great Northern Mall have been directly linked to White Pine.
Heuber-Breuer Construction president Andy Breuer said the potential of White Pine drew him to District East. That project would replace Shoppingtown Mall in DeWitt.
Breuer believes District East is close enough to the highway to allow a chip manufacturer’s employees to easily get to work.
“I don’t think any of these are premature or speculative,” Fish said.
The developments could also help the county land a project.
Semiconductor manufacturers have asked how feasible it would be to build anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 new units of housing, according to McMahon.
McMahon and Fish emphasized the new housing needs to come in all forms — whether it’s affordable, workforce or market rate housing.
Developers and McMahon have their eye on senior housing. McMahon posited that creating more senior housing will allow for seniors to move out of the homes they live in and free up houses for younger people.
About two-thirds of inquiries about District East from potential leasees are seniors looking to downsize but stay in the area, Breuer said.
Building out housing to accommodate new residents will require the county to coordinate with local towns and villages.
“We’re going to sit down with their planning boards and sit down with their leadership and say, ‘Look, we’ll give you the support you need,’” McMahon said.
Closing the deal: ‘It’s just what magnitude’
Chasing a chip factory has been the culmination of yearslong work, McMahon said.
When McMahon became county executive, he wanted to rely less on the Empire State Development corporation and have county administration drive economic development, he said.
McMahon built relationships with site selectors, who are often consultants that evaluate where to place big projects.
“That’s where Amazon came from,” McMahon said, referring to an Amazon distribution warehouse in Clay that came online this year.
The county executive said building relationships in “C suites” made him realize the possibility of a deal for a semiconductor plant.
“It’s nuts,” McMahon said. “You’re talking to CEOs of companies that you watch on CNBC and then you’re taking a call from them.”
The county has been trying to lure a semiconductor manufacturer to the site for about three years, McMahon said. In 2019, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company spurned White Pine. That rejection and others gave McMahon a blueprint to making White Pine and the county more attractive.
White Pine used to be too small to house a game-changing semiconductor plant. The county expanded it into a mega-site.
Local developers have armed the county with development announcements and updated plans for the Inner Harbor. The aquarium passed.
Now White Pine is in the running to lure a company like Micron Technology because it’s been built up, the county has ongoing development and federal and state tax breaks passed this year.
McMahon appears to have helped pitch to the Idaho-based company.
Earlier this month Gov. Kathy Hochul and United States Sen. Chuck Schumer announced the state’s incentive program for semiconductor manufacturers in Albany.
McMahon on the same day headed to Albany for “big business,” he said. Micron’s corporate plane was spotted at the Albany airport on the day of Hochul’s announcement, according to a report from the Albany Times-Union.
Yet, after the meeting, Micron applied for tax breaks in Austin, indicating it might be looking away from New York. A spokesperson for the company said it has not yet decided on a site for the project. The spokesperson said in an emailed statement that Micron applied for the Texas incentive program because the state is ending it at the end of the year. Texas has to approve Micron’s application by then for the company to reap benefits from the program.
Micron has committed $40 billion in the near-term to expanding its chip manufacturing, one of the biggest recent commitments by a chip manufacturer.
Its nod toward Texas puts the scale of McMahon’s plans in jeopardy – but he said he remains confident nonetheless.
“White Pine’s gonna get a project,” McMahon said. “It’s just what magnitude.”
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