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IF UPSTATE COMMUNITIES DON'T START THINKING REGIONALLY, THEY CAN GIVE UP ON PROSPERITY

Western New Yorkers are well aware that Buffalo was a major participant in this past summer's Chautauqua Conference on Regional Governance. They may not know about another significant conference on regionalism during this past year -- one in which my city, Rochester, took an active part.

In November, at the Freedom Forum in Washington, D.C., Rochester co-hosted a unique series of round-table discussions between mayors from around the country and the editors of their respective hometown newspapers called "Steps Toward Regional Solutions: The Rochester Forum."

One clear message emerged from both our conference and the one at Chautauqua: The independent municipality is increasingly irrelevant in a global society.

We can no longer wait years for a consensus to form among scores of municipalities in response to fierce global competition. Regional mechanisms are needed to act quickly and decisively to respond to market forces. In an era of rapid change, we need not more consensus, but more experimentation.

Regions, many scholars noted at both the Chautauqua and Rochester meetings, are the smallest scale at which it is possible to capture most of the key flows and meaningfully resolve problems in an integrated fashion.

At the same time, the region may be the largest geographical unit that people can grasp and around which they can come together.

So regionalism has a strong basis in theory. But theories don't provide answers to the question of how to get city and suburbs to cooperate.

How do we capture the imagination of local citizens? How do we continually engage local interest and action? What mechanisms can be used to put key policy questions to citizens who hold widely varying values, norms and goals? How do we move from vision to action, especially if major structural changes are needed? In the absence of federal and state support for regionalism, how do we get our communities to take the first step? How do we get representation and accountability at the regional level?

Our answers to these questions will determine the future prosperity of upstate New York. According to a recent New York Times article, Upstate has "one of the weakest, if not the weakest, economies of any significant region of the country."

It is not hard to understand why. A 1996 M&T Bank study of the state's economy detailed the connections among sprawl, the layering of local governments, high property taxes, the out-migration of people and the loss of jobs.

A 1997 Price Waterhouse survey of upstate businesses found that 28 percent are actively looking to relocate out of state.

For too many people and businesses in upstate New York, property-tax payments are higher than mortgage payments. Businesses move to places like North Carolina for three reasons: milder weather, lower wages and lower taxes. We can't do anything about the weather, and I don't think it's feasible to lower wages. But we can control taxes, which means, essentially, getting local governments to work together efficiently to rein in sprawl and all the redundant costs associated with it.

There's no rational, moral, ethical or competitive justification for governments to impose costs in the form of overlapping services, facilities and personnel.

Regional cooperation is not a question of what we should be doing for fairness, but what we must be doing in our economic self-interest to be competitive in a global society. As Ted Hershberg said in Chautauqua, "The global economy is a big train coming. If you don't build a station, you'll get left behind."

Economist Lester Thurow put it to us this way in Washington, "Get smarter or get ready for failure."

Hundreds of communities nationwide are realizing that only through win-win regional approaches can they both maintain their unique identities and use their scarce resources intelligently to position themselves competitively in a global marketplace. Meanwhile, upstate New York sputters along.

The Rochester Forum and the Chautauqua Conference placed Rochester and Buffalo at the forefront of the intense national discussion about regionalism. As we examine our economic prospects in comparison to those of most other regions of the country, it's painfully clear that the time has come to begin a serious effort to work together to make our local governments more cost-effective and efficient. This must be part of the larger effort to make the entire upstate region more competitive in the global economy.

WILLIAM A. JOHNSON JR. is the mayor of Rochester.
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