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Centerstate CEO President Links Onondaga Lake's Troubled Past to "Pervasive Pessimism" in CNY

Scott Willis

Onondaga Lake marked a major milestone this week when dredging and capping operations were declared complete.  As recently as 15 years ago, and as far back as a century, many felt the lake and its habitat would never be restored after decades of industrial pollution.  Centerstate CEO President Rob Simpson says  that cynicism has persisted as a metaphor for the region on several fronts.

Simpson had a captive audience of about 1,000 business and community leaders for the organization’s annual meeting Thursday.  He recalled how ice harvesting was banned on Onondaga lake in 1901, and fishing prohibited in 1940.  

"It's amazing really when you think about it how deeply impactful those actions,  in some cases taken over 100 years ago, have been to our community's entire growth and development."

But he says that’s exactly how Syracuse became to define itself.

 "Our imagery.  Our brand.  The message that we projected to the world for too long was one of a City and region with its back to the water.  Play that out in your mind, for a moment, and think about all of the many ways that the marginalization of Onondaga Lake may have contributed to a pervasive pessimism about our present condition and, worse yet, our future."

Simpson says we’ve been taught that the lake is a deficit, not an asset, and that it was hopeless to restore.

"While the work in and around the lake is certainly not finished, it has reached a point where the detractors can no longer say 'it can’t be done.'  What once seemed impossible, is now a dawning reality. What only a few dared to even dream, is within reach."

And that, Simpson says, is the kind of optimism he sees in the area’s business community.  Take Ichor Therapeutics for example, a biotechnology firm based in Lafayette started four years ago by SUNY Upstate Medical University student Kelsey Moody.

Ichor Therapeutics founder and CEO Kelsey Moody.

"How many times do you think Kelsey was discouraged from chasing his vision? 'Don’t buy that microscope on e-bay. You’re too young to start a business. Others have tried to cure these diseases and failed, so you will too. You will never succeed as a biotechnology firm in Lafayette. Oh by the way, taxes in New York are way too high so if you must try, go somewhere else.'"

But, with the help of a $75,000 grant from Centerstate and plenty of resolve, Simpson says Ichor has built state of the art labs, has a growing workforce, and is on the verge of clinical trials for therapeutics to treat macular degeneration.

Simpson would like to see that determination extend to the debate over the consensus recommendation to create a metropolitan government.  He says he wasn’t prepared for the immediate dismissiveness and misrepresentation that followed.

"You would think the tone and tenor of the discourse might get discouraging, but frankly I find it refreshing. Energizing. Because it means our passions have been aroused. Because it means we are trying to do something hard but necessary.  And because it means that we are talking about issues that need to be confronted openly and transparently."

For example, he says, that our current path has produced nearly 50 years of zero population growth, under-representation of minorities, gerrymandered legislative districts, inequities in schools, and a city on the verge of bankruptcy.  

Read Simpson's full remarks here


The Honeywell executive charged with leading the clean-up and restoration of Onondaga Lake shared her experience Thursday with more than 1,000 business and community leaders at Centerstate CEO's annual meeting.   Her keynote address comes as the lake clean-up has just reached a major milestone. 

Honeywell Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kate Adams has spent 14 years leading the clean-up of Onondaga Lake.

Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Honeywell Kate Adams recalls coming to Syracuse for the first time in 2003.  She was here to resolve a lawsuit brought by predecessor company Allied Chemical against Onondaga County.

"We had no real visibility as an organization into most of our legacy environmental sites.  Candidly, we had no strategy to address them."

It didn’t seem like a promising start.  But Adams knew then it was ill advised to fight with the county over the lake, and settled the suit.  During the next 14 years, Adams and Honeywell hired a team that embraced science, community oriented decision making, and strong partnerships with local experts and organizations to find the best ways to clean the lake.  She says they kept a commitment to hire and buy local.

"I'm proud to say, and this is a testament to this community and the wonderful business environment that exists here...90 percent of the workforce that worked on the lake and 80 percent of the products used in this restoration were supplied from the centerstate region."

Adams says everyone from construction workers and engineers to academics and scientists worked seamlessly with national experts to ultimately reach a major milestone.

"Fourteen years after my first trip to Syracuse; after hundreds of thousands of hours of investigation, design and engineering; close to 5 million worker hours; thousands of community meetings and the successful deployment of a green, sustainable remedy, I am proud to say the dredging and capping of Onondaga Lake is now complete."

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at