An image of White Pine Commerce Park, where Micron plans to put its chip plants. Credit: Courtesy of Onondaga County

Micron’s arrival in Central New York has been billed as transformational  – but maximizing Micron’s effect will take significant planning, said local economic development experts, advocates and planners who have seen the impacts of chip manufacturers elsewhere.

“For the last 15 months, the challenge has been about landing Micron and this investment and I couldn’t be happier about it,” CenterState CEO president Rob Simpson said. “But the next 15 years is going to be about managing that growth and steering that growth to happen in ways that really do enhance the quality of our communities throughout the region.” 

Simpson said the right solutions will lead to “smart growth.”

He and Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon have both said they hope to limit sprawl, which could make it harder to create more robust public transportation in the region. 

It will be difficult for Micron to deliver on its promises to involve city residents in its workforce without quality transportation, according to advocates. 

Central New York can avoid the mistakes of cities with chip plants that have struggled with sprawl. 

Just down Interstate 90 in Malta, between Albany and Saratoga Springs, is one example of a city who struggled with sprawl, said James D’Agostino, the executive director of the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council. SMTC is Central New York’s metropolitan planning organization. 

“There’s a great example of how not to do it,” D’Agostino said. 

Lessons from Malta 

Thirteen years ago, officials similarly promised the chip plant in Malta would be transformational. 

But so far, it hasn’t quite lived up to its billing, said Sandra Misiewicz, the executive director of the Capital District Transportation Council. The organization is SMTC’s equivalent in the Albany area. 

“Saratoga County definitely benefited. There’s no doubt about it,” Misiewicz said. “Did the region as a whole see a big change? I’d question that.”

While GlobalFoundries’ planned investment there is expected to be a fraction of Micron’s here, lessons can still be learned from Malta. Since the plant’s arrival, the Capital Region has grown. Malta’s and Saratoga County’s populations grew 16% and 7.2% respectively. The median income in Saratoga County jumped 31%, outpacing the rate of inflation for the same period.

But the region also saw sprawl.

D’Agostino said he’s familiar with the region and the chip plant’s effect. Developers did build apartments and walkable neighborhoods, but they also developed strip malls and subdivisions, D’Agostino said. He called those “low-level development.”

Misiewicz said the plant still doesn’t have any public transportation running directly to it. 

Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon speaks at the Micron event at OCC in Syracuse on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

“I wish I could say it happened in an organized way in Saratoga County,” Misiewicz said . “I think it happened where the opportunities were there.” 

Some of the pitfalls stem from a lack of quick planning after the announcement that the chip plant would be coming in 2009. In 2011, the year before the plant opened, the town of Malta put a moratorium on the development of residential and commercial buildings to rewrite its zoning laws so that developers couldn’t build more than three or four stories high. 

By the time they finished, in 2013, the plant had already opened and its employees had already moved into the area. 

Employees moved into single-family homes vacated by retiring New York state employees or subdivisions were built. 

Realtors often directed employees to areas based on the reputation of their local school districts, according to Misiewicz. GlobalFoundries workers often came from outside the U.S. or other regions of the country and bought houses sight unseen. 

The biggest lesson Central New York should pull from development in Malta is the region should invest in its planning now, Misiewicz said. 

“Don’t wait any longer,” Misiewicz said. “If they haven’t done it already, they need to be starting to do it right now.” 

‘Not going to be an exercise in sprawl’

Local leaders agree Central New York can’t afford to sprawl. 

McMahon said to prevent sprawl he would only lay down new sewers strategically. The county plans to expand the sewer system to White Pine Commerce Park, the site of the planned campus, to make the chip plant feasible. But, McMahon said he does not yet want a neighborhood to spring up because of the expansion. 

“This is not going to be an exercise in I’m just gonna go put new sewers everywhere,” McMahon said. “This is not going to be an exercise in sprawl.”

Future development needs to happen where it already has infrastructure, local leaders said.

Because the region already sprawled in the middle of the 20th century, during its last growth spurt, it already has the infrastructure to handle growth, Simpson said. 

Developers will use existing infrastructure in three big redevelopment projects planned for the area: Syracuse Developmental Center, Shoppingtown Mall and Great Northern Mall.

Together, those projects could create more than 1,000 units of housing. 

While the county and local leaders are pushing redevelopment, town and village zoning boards could create some hurdles. 

In Malta, the development moratorium to revamp zoning stalled apartment building development — population-dense housing with walkability — but not single family homes, for example. 

The individual town planning boards will decide the types of development they allow in their town (single family housing or mixed-use residential, for example). That may not end up being the dense housing, like apartments, that prevent sprawl and facilitate public transportation. 

“They ultimately hold control over how that development pattern occurs. It isn’t actually a county or a state decision,” D’Agostino said. “It’s a local decision.” 

Transportation

Local leaders expect Micron’s investment to spur the creation of bus-rapid transit, connecting the county and the city. 

There could ultimately be two connected networks: one in the city and another that takes people to county employers, McMahon said. The route in the county would stop at places like Micron, Raymour & Flanigan and Annheuser-Busch, according to McMahon. 

“Until this community grows to the next level, people’s first sources will always be their own vehicles for a period of time,” McMahon said. “Behavior will change likely as generations change.”

Micron CEO Sanjay Mehrotra and President Joe Biden on stage during the Micron event at OCC in Syracuse on Oct. 27, 2022. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

In 2017, SMTC, the region’s planning agency, studied transportation in the city and recommended that Centro implement bus-rapid transit. Politicians, advocates and planners have since pushed for it but efforts have stalled. 

Syracuse Common Councilor Mike Greene convened a group of leaders to build momentum around bus-rapid transit in March 2020. Then the pandemic hit. The issue at the time, Greene said, was largely funding. It would’ve cost about $8 million to run BRT every year.

Greene said Micron’s investment exacerbated the need for BRT. 

 “We don’t have a transportation network for a growing community,” he said. 

The group Uplift Syracuse has also been advocating for BRT. Maurice Brown, one of the Uplift leaders, said he believes implementing BRT is one of the best ways to make sure city residents can get jobs at Micron. 

As the community grows, there will be more traffic, a problem Central New York hasn’t had because the region’s population for decades stagnated, said Alex Lawson, another member of Uplift Syracuse. BRT could ease the amount of traffic the region sees, he said.

Micron has so far said it will involve city residents and people of color in its arrival in Syracuse. Executive April Arnzen has at press conferences and public events reiterated that Micron hopes to hire from “underrepresented communities.” 

Simpson likened the project to a rising tide that “must lift all boats”in his speech at the Micron rally on Thursday at Onondaga Community College.

Brown, of Uplift Syracuse, said that for that to happen, bus-rapid transit is a must. 

“We need to make it where everyone has access to those jobs and really jobs throughout the county,” Brown said. “The only efficient way to do that is expanding our transportation system.” 

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Chris Libonati

Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.