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Speakers At Syracuse Surge Summit Stress Equity Is A Pillar Of This Economic Plan

City of Syracuse

The inaugural Syracuse Surge Summit this week brought entrepreneurs, local officials, and community stakeholders into one virtual space to discuss the work that’s been done on the Surge project. The featured speakers and panelists focused on their promise of an equitable, technology economy.

Kelsey Davis was one of the people making remarks at the summit. When Davis came to Syracuse University, she didn’t plan to be a digital entrepreneur. But she found a tech community in Syracuse that helped her create CLLCTVE, a digital platform to connect college creators.

“I came here to go to Syracuse University, to learn a million different things about whatever,” said Davis. “But being open to what the city had to give to me and the lessons and the value that it had to give to me and figuring out what to give to it was super important.”

People like Davis and companies like CLLCTVE are an example of what the Syracuse Surge initiative wants to cultivate in the city. Mayor Ben Walsh’s signature economic development plan is a partnership with the city, Onondaga County, Syracuse University’s iSchool and Microsoft. Stakeholders have been working on it for over a year.

“The impedes for Surge was really driven by unfortunately Syracuse showing up on the kind of top ten list that you never want to be on. In 2018, we were in the top ten cities with the highest poverty rate,” said Walsh. “And rather than throw up our hands or dwell on the negative, I saw it a s an opportunity, and we saw it as an opportunity to really dig into those numbers to determine what is driving these statistics and how can we begin to change them?”

Credit WAER File Photo

Mayor Walsh said they found that the city’s housing instability, unreliable transportation and unequal access to the internet were major factors in the city’s poverty. But the data also showed an emerging tech sector, giving way to a plan for an economy centered on technological innovation and equality. The focus on equity is what CenterState CEO’s Rob Simpson says will be the difference.

“Recognizing that high tech initiatives in the past in other communities have historically exacerbated inequality as opposed to improve it,” said Simpson. “And this is a community whose leadership has been able to acknowledge that openly and to start to plan intentionally to try to make sure that the opportunities that are created are one where there is equal access.”

Take Santa Clara County for example, the home to California’s famed Silicon Valley. The median household income in 2017 was over $96,000. But a study by the California Budget and Policy Center found that the poverty rate the same year was around 18%, when adjusted to local cost of living.

Now, Santa Clara County is larger than Onondaga County, and it’s one of the most extreme examples, but economists are increasingly examining how tech economies impact inequity. But Walsh says equity is a cornerstone of the Surge strategy.

“It’s identifying what are those additional technology infrastructure investments to make but then always looking at those investments through the lens of equity to ensure that everyone is benefitting from them. And particularly the communities that have historically been marginalized and have been disadvantaged,” said Walsh.

On the first day of the summit, Verizon launched its fastest 5G network in Syracuse’s Northside neighborhood and parts of the Southside, both areas including census tracts with high rates of poverty. Allyn Foundation Executive Director Meg O’Connell said on the Southside, they’re looking to make right the historical wrongs of redlining and segregation.

“It was a great neighborhood at one time, but there is really considerable opportunities to really make that again a place where XBEs [Minority, Women, and Veteran owned businesses] and the entire community has the opportunities for people to really meet their full potential,” said O’Connell.

And despite the fiscal crises that COVID-19 has caused, officials say the Surge projects arestill moving ahead. JMA Wireless is building its campus on Syracuse’s Southside and Central Tech is still set to be the region’s new STEAM school. Walsh said they’re looking at how to incorporate job training and a possible bus rapid transit system into the plan to create holistic and equitable development as advertised.

Katie Zilcosky is WAER’s All Things Considered host and features reporter. She also co-hosts WAER’s public affairs show Syracuse Speaks. As a reporter, she focuses on technology, economy, and identity.