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‘LEADING THE WAY’: Finger Lakes serves as prime example of what Upstate can do for NY economy

History, agriculture, and advanced manufacturing lead the way

– By Josh Durso

Vinnie Esposito says the kind of activity and development seen in communities like Geneva and Seneca Falls is emblematic of the possibilities when communities rally around a single-idea or plan.

In a recent interview with, the Finger Lakes Regional Director for Empire State Development discussed the changes – good and bad – in economic development locally.

“The best projects are the ones that build upon the strength of our history,” Esposito explained of the state’s initiative to continue spending more money in Upstate New York than ever before. “It’s really something that gets me excited.”

Among those projects embracing history are the renovation and repurposing of the former Seneca Knitting Mill, located along the canal in downtown Seneca Falls. It was repurposed to home the National Women’s Hall of Fame, which in terms of economic development is a win. The property sat vacant, and had little future in terms of manufacturing – as the building fell further-and-further into disrepair. To make matters worse, the state of traditional manufacturing declined.

Esposito says there’s significant opportunity for advanced manufacturing in the region, and it’s being realized in places like Rochester with the recent tech boom. That said, he recognizes the difficulty in bringing that message to taxpayers and residents in rural parts of the Finger Lakes.

“For better or worse our economic development zones are set, and built around the major metro-areas,” he explained again. It’s a common theme around economic development discussions in the Finger Lakes. Those who take on the ‘region proper’ see a significantly different world than those perpetuated by economic development pros.

The Finger Lakes, which essentially fills in all the spaces between Rochester, Syracuse, and the Southern Tier is not what New York State classifies as the ‘Finger Lakes Economic Development Region’.

“We have made incredible investments, not just through the downtown revitalization initiative program, which is the one that gets most of the attention. But throughout the state in places like the buffalo waterfront, the Rochester Riverfront, and all sorts of other places,” Esposito explained. The biggest example of regional funding that gets focused on throughout the year is the competition for $10 million in form of Downtown Revitalization Initiative dollars.

It’s a big deal. Esposito says he understands how important it is to those communities, but says there is probably a little too much attention on that single-program, as opposed to the range of others that the state’s economic development arm embraces.

“Upstate revitalization in general, the Buffalo Billion, and some of these programs that have gotten so much attention creates a level of expectation,” he said. “Sometimes we overlook the strategic investments we’re making with a myriad of other state programs.” Throughout the life of these economic development directives set down by Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Finger Lakes region has seen $1.3 billion in investment.

Esposito admits that things have changed in a lot of these communities, which once relied heavily on the manufacturing industry. While those days of traditional manufacturing are gone, there are other significant opportunities on the table. Among them is the continued growth of the Finger Lakes brand. Perhaps one of the most-identifiable in the state, or entire U.S.

“This region is a high-quality product,” Esposito said. “The changes that have made through partnership, in terms of regulatory environment and allowing the craft beverage industry to grow with the wine industry is important. But you mix in the tourism growth that’s occurred here on top of that, which of course, is related, as well as the industrial growth that we’ve seen in the ag industry with partnerships with Cornell in Geneva and Ithaca, and it makes for a great environment.”

While marketing to smaller communities remains a challenge, Esposito says there’s plenty to be optimistic about. “I’m incredibly bullish on what’s happened in the Finger Lakes,” he added. “I think it is leading the way in terms of how Upstate can transform itself.”