What will the Westchester of tomorrow look like? Will we have various innovation hubs scattered around the county? An elevated personal rapid transit system based on magnetic levitation? Thriving downtowns clustered around transit-oriented developments that draw much-coveted Millennial workers? A host of collaborative private-public partnerships that yield various smart growth initiatives? All of these seemed like possible answers to that question at last week’s “Westchester: County of Tomorrow” conference.
The conference, a new flagship event from the Westchester County Association (WCA), was conceived as “a terrific opportunity to assess how far [Westchester has] come and to learn from others, near and far, about how best to move forward,” according to WCA President Bill Mooney. To the 250 people who attended the event at the Renaissance Westchester Hotel in West Harrison, it was a chance to hear from inspirational leaders from other cities and regions who have already put in place many of the economic development strategies and initiatives our county aspires to—with pretty spectacular results.
If you’ve wondered before how other regions have overcome economic growth obstacles or blighted pasts and blazed paths to prosperity—building hip innovation districts and thriving downtowns—this was the place to find out. In Raleigh, North Carolina, for instance, Jason Widen’s group, Innovate Raleigh, has helped more than 500 startups raise more than $340 million in funding since it started just five years ago. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, Mayor Andy Berke has revolutionized his city’s economy with a downtown innovation district and a 10-gigs-of-data-in-every home Internet smart grid. In Central Texas, future-savvy education has become a major focus (the area has seen a 600-percent increase in high school enrollment in STEM classes), thanks to Susan Dawson’s Austin-based organization, E3 Alliance, which takes a data-heavy approach to coaxing positive change from often stubborn business leaders and politicians.
(Left to right)Jason Widen, co-founder, Innovate Raleigh; Susan Dawson, E3 Alliance, Austin; Hon. Andy Berke, Mayor of Chattanooga; Seth Pinsky, EVP at RXR Realty at the Westchester: County of Tomorrow conference. Photo: Lynda Curtis for Harrison Edwards
This type of thinking—and the results it produces—is just what the WCA is hoping to promote here in Westchester. And this conference was the start of the obvious next conversations that need to take place: how do we catalyze this type of growth and change here at home? And how do we pay for it?
Here, the most inspiring takeaways from the event—food for thought on what might help us take Westchester County in the direction we all want it to go in:
• “Anticipate or die.” Keynote speaker and economic development futurist Dean Whittaker of Michigan-based Whittaker Associates explained that this sentiment must pervade all economic development approaches: we need to be looking to see where the current trends (in business, technology, politics, lifestyle, etc.) are going and what’s coming up next, so we can spot the opportunities that these trends may hold for our communities.
• “If you build it, they will NOT come.” Widen twisted this familiar phrase to stress the fact that innovation needs to be bottom-up and entrepreneur-led, not fed to the community from those at the top. He also stressed the need for those involved in driving change to “check your egos,” explaining that his group helped fuel Raleigh’s growing startup culture by working together to connect people to mentorship and capital, and creatively promote their successes.
• “Tell the story with data.” How do you get corporate and political leaders to pay attention to issues of concern to your community? Speak the language they understand—in other words, data—explained Dawson of E3 Alliance. Using data as a platform for change, her group convinced Texas leaders that investing in programs to boost school attendance and decreasing the high-school dropout rate actually had a positive ROI for the community at large.
• “The innovation economy can’t just be for 24-year-old white guys.” Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke has attracted plenty of 24-year-old white guys (and their companies) to his newly revived city’s high-tech downtown innovation district. But he also pioneered the city’s use of high-speed broadband to make Internet connections available to every household in the city, and spurred programs to help make Internet access a reality for impoverished households and not-so-tech-savvy senior citizens.
• “You have to build value; you can’t just race to the bottom on cost.” Tax incentives are a valuable tool for economic growth, but can’t be a community’s only tool, explained Brooklyn-based Seth Pinsky, former president of the NYC Economic Development Corporation who is currently with RXR Realty, the folks behind New Rochelle’s new downtown master plan. “You have to promote the idea of cost relative to value,” he said, adding that economic development “can’t just be about building the buildings, it has to be as much about what goes on in those buildings—and in your greater area.”
• “You need to build collision points.” Entrepreneurs, forward thinkers, business leaders—they all need to work in close proximity in order to move ideas forward that will drive change, explained Berke. Part of the success in Chattanooga, and in Raleigh, echoed Widen, is due to the fact that these groups were galvanized by literally working in the same areas, with easy access to each other and physical places were they could “collide and intersect.”
• “Bring the cynics to the table.” The quote was from Susan Dawson of E3, but the theme was echoed by several of the presenters. Why engage your detractors? You need to be able to see and understand the viewpoints of all stakeholders involved, she explained, so you can incorporate (and eventually, anticipate) their objections into your plans. Plus, she added, “you may find that they are actually right about some things, and your ideas may be all the better for it.”