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Warren County: If You Listen Closely, You Can Hear the Future

Warren County: If You Listen Closely, You Can Hear the Future April 11, 2024
A view down Lake George, courtesy Fort William Henry.
A view down Lake George, courtesy Fort William Henry.

As Dr. John E. Kelly III, the chairman of RPI’s Board of Trustees, avid Engineers fan and Lake George resident likes to say, “skate where the puck is headed, not where it is.”

One of the benefits of attending Warren County Economic Development Corporation conferences, meetings and annual luncheons is that you are likely to learn where the regional economy – the puck, as it were – is headed.

In 2013, for instance, when he was the leader of  IBM’s research teams and the featured speaker at that year’s EDC’s annual luncheon, John  Kelly hinted that something big was coming our way: a joint venture that would link environmental protection with economic development and leverage both. A few months later, Kelly announced the creation of the Jefferson Project, an ambitious collaboration between business (IBM),  academia (RPI) and environmental conservation (The Fund for Lake George, since merged with the LGA).

The partners’ aim was to make Lake George “the world’s smartest lake.”

Last fall, Kelly again addressed an EDC luncheon, this time speaking about the Jefferson Project’s progress in decoding cynobacteria and the likelihood that its scientists and engineers will be the first to understand why some remain benign and others turn toxic.

(Given the economic impact of toxic algal blooms, which is estimated to be in the billions, an ability to prevent cynobacteria from manifesting dangerous variations “is a very big deal,” Kelly said.)

Kelly was joined by Dr. Martin A. Schmidt, the former provost of MIT and Dr. Shirley Jackson’s successor as RPI’s president, who spoke to the audience of business, civic and government leaders about “economic leapfrogs,” the dynamics that enable one region to surpass its competitors by creating new assets or leveraging existing ones. 

“Identify or create ‘unfair advantages;’ that’s what will push this region forward. Create an infrastructure and an environment that will attract the assets that will drive the economy,” Schmidt advised.

Among the assets developed by other cities, or by neighborhoods within cities, such as Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA: foundational science or intellectual capital; a capacity to transfer ideas from the campus and research lab to the marketplace; and, finally, leaders able to appreciate the economic benefits of cross-pollinating collaborations among historically competing institutions.  

“As you identify the organizations, institutions and individuals deeply committed to this region and which have the capacity to think long term – bring them together to seek out the opportunities that will make the whole greater than the sum of the parts,”  said Schmidt.

No doubt, on the minds of both Schmidt and John Kelly on that October day in Lake George was a Capital Region   “economic leapfrog” or “unfair advantage” that could propel upstate New York to the forefront of tech hotspots.

On April 5, both Schmidt and Kelly were at the RPI campus in Troy to officially unveil the world’s first-ever IBM quantum computer to be installed on a university campus.

“Our faculty, students and partners can now work together to explore quantum computing’s applications in health, pharmaceuticals, sustainability, artificial intelligence, national security, among many other things,” said Kelly.

RPI and UAlbany also announced a new collaboration to push computer technology and its applications forward on behalf of the region.

“When universities work together, communities and economies flourish,” said Schmidt. “Partnering with neighboring institutions will further establish the Capital Region as a technology capital.”

U.S. Representative Paul Tonko said the partnerships of IBM, RPI and UAlbany “will reinforce our region’s status as a global hub for the advancement of cutting-edge technologies, paving the way for a future of innovation and high-tech manufacturing here in the Capital Region and ensuring that our communities remain at the forefront of technological advancement.”

As Schmidt said at Lake George, superstar metros such as Boston,  New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles cannot, by themselves, sustain the economic growth of the U.S.

“It is an opportune moment for regions like this one  to step forward. It’s an exciting time for this region,” said Schmidt.

And there is nothing to prevent this “moment” from extending its reach up the Hudson and above the Blue Line.

Warren County Administrator John Taflan agrees, noting  that Warrren County has the potential to benefit from an expanding Tech Valley.

“Glens Falls is on a great pathway forward and I’d like to see some form of businesses – perhaps in the tech arena – that would employ people on a regular basis come into the county. We have the capability to support it,” said Taflan.

So, too, does Norabelle Greenberger, the consultant retained by Warren County to assist with its new Comprehensive Plan, who says,  “we can see opportunities to capture some of the population growth now occurring in neighboring counties, most notably Saratoga County.”

The three hundred or so long term rental apartments under construction in Queensbury are, in all likelihood, an indicator of future demand.

According to Schmidt, the Jefferson Project is a foundation for a wider collaboration that could benefit Warren County and contribute to the growth of the Capital Region.

“Who else should we bring in? Who are the people who are thinking long term about the future and who can help us create more opportunities for the region?  Who can attract the people that ought to be here to accelerate these opportunities for growth?”  Schmidt asked.

Warren County EDC president Jim Siplon said he has been asking himself that same question for at least a decade. 

At the EDC luncheon, which was held in Fort William Henry’s Carriage House, Siplon pitched “The Freshwater Center at Lake George,” a vision for a new regional economy, one that  would create jobs by and for scientists and technicians, who in turn would attract more of their kind to the Adirondacks.

“The knowledge of freshwater protection that has been amassed here should be shared with the world,” said Siplon.  “The future of our region and our identity is tied to our ability to build economic development channels that have never existed before.”

Siplon said he hoped the EDC luncheon at the Carriage House would be “the beginning of a conversation about how Warren County and our entire region can work together” to turbocharge economic development.

“This moonshot has been 10 years or more in the making, but it’s ours to make,” he said.

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