Despite challenges, CenterState CEO leader Robert Simpson upbeat as economic opportunities arise in Central New York
By Lou Sorendo
The city of Syracuse is one of the 10 poorest places in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2017, 32.4 percent of the population of Syracuse lived below the poverty level.
This reality makes the job of CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity, Central New York’s economic development catalyst and business leadership organization, considerably more challenging.
Robert Simpson is the president and chief executive at CenterState CEO, and is proactive when it comes to addressing this key socio-economic issue.
Simpson is in his ninth year of leading the nonprofit association that serves more than 2,000 members in 19 counties.
Work Train, which fosters shared prosperity in Central New York by connecting unemployed or underemployed individuals to career opportunities, is one of many examples of collaborative initiatives that are addressing the root issues of poverty, Simpson said.
“At the same time, Work Train helps employers access new and previously untapped, but often overlooked, human capital that is already right here in our community,” he said.
The program is a national model and CenterState CEO is expanding the program to Cayuga and Oswego counties this year. Also, it will be adding new industry sector programs, including coding and programming.
Since 2014, CenterState CEO’s Work Train program has served 864 participants with a job placement rate of 80 percent.
Of those, 206 individuals have a criminal conviction record and 247 do not possess a high school diploma or the equivalent.
“Through these job training and placement efforts, and with a broad range of social service providers partnering with us to deliver much needed supports to these individuals, 76 percent of individuals who started in our program while receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families from the government were able to get off of this public assistance,” Simpson noted.
Additionally, the Allyn Family Foundation, in collaboration with CenterState CEO and others, has established a new nonprofit corporation called Syracuse Urban Partnership. It will build a multi-floor building that includes a public market-food hall, mixed-income housing and office space for the Allyn Family Foundation and other community partners.
The first-floor public market-food hall will provide a venue for entrepreneurial vendors to start and build their businesses as well as a space for the community to gather.
CenterState CEO’s economic inclusion team and its Up Start program will work with collaborators to ensure a diverse array of culinary-based businesses are prepared to fill the marketplace, Simpson said.
Up Start provides business training, technical assistance and facilitates access to business services such as lending and legal assistance to help grow businesses, contributing to stronger neighborhoods and shared prosperity, he added.
“These efforts are important examples of ways that this community is addressing poverty with economic solutions,” Simpson said. “Targeted training and education as well as supporting entrepreneurs from marginalized communities are important steps forward.”
Simpson said to significantly begin to make an impact, “we must also be intentional in our business development efforts to encourage more employers to locate new or expanded facilities in closer proximity to those who need jobs.”
With this focus in mind, the Syracuse Urban Partnership has decided to locate its new building on Salina Street in Syracuse. It will be at a “pivotal corner” where the opportunity to infuse economic vitality into the city can be leveraged by the downtown community as well as residents of the southeast and southwest corridors of the city, he added.
Filling in workforce gaps
On the workforce development front, a “skills gap” has persisted which challenges regional employers when it comes to finding qualified workers.
CenterState CEO, however, is making inroads in terms of preparing local workers for jobs that require higher skill sets.
“There is no doubt that we have to be creative if we are going to make full use of the true labor pool that is available to us in Central New York,” Simpson said. “The simple fact is too many residents of our region have been left behind, marginalized and even excluded from the labor market, which is why the Work Train program is so critical.”
While CenterState CEO is partnering in many initiatives and efforts across this entire spectrum, “more partners are needed if we are going to make a material impact,” Simpson said.
“When it comes to education, preparing our workforce begins with preparing our children,” he noted.
Simpson said partners such as CenterState CEO, the Manufacturers Association of Central New York, Onondaga Community College and dozens of the region’s businesses have helped the Syracuse City School District — under the leadership of superintendent Jaime Alicea — develop and launch pivotal educational programs.
More than 25 leading-edge career and technical education programs have been designed to engage Syracuse district students in hands-on, career-oriented learning opportunities in industries from natural resources to cybersecurity to drones, he noted.
Recently, CenterState CEO engaged with the Syracuse City School District and BOCES, the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County to look at ways to expand these career technical education offerings and make them available, not just to city schoolchildren, but to all students throughout the region.
At Le Moyne College in Syracuse, President Linda Lemura has been working with regional employers on developing new pathways to fill the science-technology-engineering-math (STEM) jobs that many growing technology companies need filled.
“They have launched a Quantitative Reasoning Center, opened a Thinking Village on campus for city of Syracuse middle school students, and are working with more than 500 Syracuse high school students, helping them to achieve graduation rates in excess of 95 percent,” Simpson said.
“It is partnerships like these, from pre-K programs to K-12 to our region’s many institutions of higher education, that are necessary for us to educate and train our next generation to be active and full participants in the economic future we seek to create,” he added.
Simpson noted at the beginning of 2018 that economic optimism in the region was “muted.”
However, he characterizes the economic climate in Central New York as 2019 unfolds in a different vein now.
“If you are looking for a single headline from our economic forecast this year, it is that the robust growth that drove investments in 2018 is expected to continue into 2019, giving us reason to be hopeful as we start the year,” he said.
Simpson said the region’s gross domestic product growth accelerated more than threefold in 2018, its best performance in six years.
Unemployment is also at a record low, 3.8 percent, with 2,800 more people in the workforce getting a paycheck, he added.
“Seventy-four percent of respondents to our economic forecast survey described their business in 2018 as being strong or very strong,” Simpson said. “Seventy-five percent say they anticipate overall sales and revenue growth in 2019, up from 67 percent the previous year.”
Forty-nine percent expect to make capital investments, up 5 percent from last year, he said.
Seventy-five percent of forecasters say they anticipate overall sales and revenue growth in 2019, up from 67 percent the previous year, Simpson said.
“What’s more, the majority of those that do expect to grow anticipate doing so by 6 to 10 percent,” he added.
Forty-nine percent expect to make capital investments, up 5 percent from last year. Seventy-seven percent of survey respondents said they have plans to grow their exports in 2019, up from 54 percent in 2018, he reported.
“And in a final indicator of just how optimistic our forecasters are heading into 2019, the number of respondents who are worried about stagnant markets dropped by half from last year, to 9 percent, a near-record low,” he said.
Simpson said 55 percent of forecasters are expecting an increase in hiring in 2019, while at the same time the ability to find and retain talent reached the top of the list of business concerns.
Forty-nine percent say talent attraction and retention will impact their business this year, up from just 26 percent last year, he added.
“Our challenge now is to maximize this opportunity while bringing more people in our community into the workforce to be part of this progress,” Simpson said. “To do so will require a multi-dimensional approach to attracting and retaining talent, and innovative solutions to expanding our existing labor pool.”
Simpson said several pathways are being explored, such as engaging with educational providers to tailor programs to the needs of industry.
The strategy also includes carefully reviewing hiring practices to see that productive, capable workers aren’t unintentionally being excluded from potential applicant pools. It also involves partnering with the regional Talent Task Force to pilot new and creative strategies to help attract more talent, he added.
The Talent Task Force is a regional initiative led by the private sector that includes the CNY Regional Economic Development Council, CenterState CEO and the New York State Labor Department.
“We must collectively embrace a civic leadership role to help ensure continued growth in the year ahead, he said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced the winners of the 2018 Regional Economic Development Council awards.
The Central New York REDC was again named a “top performer” and will receive $88.2 million to support 91 projects.
The CNY region was awarded the most investment of any region across the state in the eighth round of the REDC recently and has received the most investment out of all 10 council regions since the inception of this statewide competitive funding program.
“I attribute this success to the quality of the projects we put forward, their strong return on investment of state dollars, and their ability to advance the strategies the CNYREDC developed at the beginning of this process,” he said.
Of the projects awarded in the latest round, Simpson said three in particular are notable in terms of contributing most to the economic sustainability and vitality of the CNY region.
Salina 1st, LLC is a project set to break ground on the first mixed-use development on the south side in years, turning several vacant properties on South Salina street in Syracuse into manufacturing, retail, office, and residential space.
“This brings new energy, investment and jobs to a part of our city that needs them the most,” Simpson said.
PPC Broadband, Inc. is a project that will create a 500,000-square-foot manufacturing facility to expand existing operations in Central New York, including reshoring portions of its manufacturing operations.
Its final facility will include offices, a lab, a manufacturing and assembly plant, and warehouse and distribution center. It will be built in five separate phases.
In addition, another notable project is East Lake Commons, LLC, which will feature development at the former Midtown Plaza in Oswego.
“This has the potential to have incredible impact,” Simpson said.
The project was awarded funding through the state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative as well as through the REDC process.
The project will create an 88,000 square-foot, six-story mixed-use building with 75 housing units.
“It will support 140 jobs and address important community issues like affordable housing and blight, and will also help attract new business, tourists and residents to the area,” he said.
High technology takes flight
Simpson addressed some of the sectors of the CNY economy that have flourished over the past year or so, such as continued strength in the unmanned systems sector.
NUAIR has signed agreements with several new partners to build out the second phase of the unmanned traffic management corridor, he noted.
The GENIUS NY program, which supports the growth of small and startup companies in the unmanned aerial systems sector, received a record 300-plus applications for its third round of competition, Simpson said.
“This record number of people interested in the program speaks to the success and strength of the sector in the region,” he said. “The program targets both investments and resources and is the world’s largest unmanned systems accelerator.”
Recently, GENIUS NY welcomed five new teams to The Tech Garden to begin its yearlong program.
“In April, we will award a total of $3 million to these teams. Over the past two years, the program has supported 12 companies with investments of more than $6 million, which has resulted in their growth and the hiring of both full- and part-time employees.
“We have companies from all over the globe moving here to test their systems on the only beyond visual line of site test corridor in the country,” Simpson said.
This includes companies like Unifly, a Belgian company that provides traffic management technology for the growing unmanned systems sector.
Simpson said the company has committed to setting up its North American headquarters in Syracuse, pledging 40 new jobs
Likewise, Thales, a French multinational company that is a global leader in air traffic management with 65,000 employees in 56 countries, opened an office in Syracuse.
Simpson said it was just a year ago that CenterState CEO predicted a year of transformation in several key sectors, including the burgeoning tech industry.
“As you walk along Warren Street in Syracuse, you can’t help but feel a new sense of energy and dynamism from some of our region’s fastest-growing companies,” he said.
In a few years, companies like Digital Hyve have gone from two employees to more than 100, Simpson noted.
Inc. magazine recently named Digital Hyve the 52nd fastest growing private company and the fifth-fastest growing advertising and marketing company in the U.S.
In addition, TCGplayer is beginning to move into its new headquarters, taking over and renovating space in the The Galleries, which has been described as Syracuse’s new architectural centerpiece.
“TCGplayer is creating a workspace replete with ships, dragons and the Millennium Falcon all in an effort to attract talent as they expand to more than 300 employees and redefine what it means to be a growth company in Central New York,” Simpson said.
Focus on diversity, inclusion
Simpson said diversity and inclusion are necessary ingredients for success in today’s business world.
At front and center is CenterState CEO’s diversity and inclusion council.
CenterState CEO recognizes that diversity in all its forms is imperative to its success, Simpson said.
“Whether it is religion, race or ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, age or differing abilities, unique backgrounds, experiences and thoughts drive creative and effective decision-making,” he said. “An inclusive workplace delivers better outcomes for all.”
To that end, CenterState CEO has formally committed to be more intentional in these efforts by embracing a new diversity and inclusion policy.
“CEO’s goal is to continuously cultivate a diverse organization through its recruiting, retention, training, advancement opportunities and board leadership,” Simpson noted.
CenterState CEO’s staff-led diversity and inclusion council, with guidance and input from CEO’s board of directors, developed this policy, is committed to its values and pledges to advance CenterState CEO toward its goals, he added.
“CenterState CEO knows many of its members are actively developing their own diversity and inclusion plans,” he said. “Working with key community partners, CEO intends to add programming during the next year designed to help members engage in these efforts.”