5/10/2005

Clear the Way, Fellows. The Yellow Brick Road Is Coming Through: The New York Times, 5/8/05

By Peter Applebone

In this corner we have what's certain to become the greatest thing to hit upstate since the Erie Canal: DestiNY USA, the developer Robert Congel's ever-elastic field of dreams. To be picky, three years after construction was to begin, it doesn't yet exist. Still, at the moment it promises the biggest, greenest most enviro-friendly mall and entertainment project in the galaxy and the first 21st century "technology cluster," which will be to this century what Silicon Valley was to the last one: 250,000 jobs! $65 billion in taxes created over 30 years! 100 percent fossil-fuel free! "The most visited single leisure destination on earth!"

And in this corner, we have Tim Follett of Brannock Device Company, which makes those things they use to measure your foot at the shoe store; Robert Strutz of Butch's Automotive and Transmission; Brian Osborne of Syracuse Crank and Machine; and more than 20 other businesses, most of them in low-rise buildings in Salina, near the intersection of the New York State Thruway and Interstate 81 near Syracuse.

So it may turn out Syracuse will be home to the biggest tourist draw in the world, and removing 29 little businesses through eminent domain, by which the government can forcibly buy private property for "public use," is a small price to pay for DestiNY's proposed $2.67 billion research and development park announced in February.

But when Mr. Follett, Mr. Strutz, Mr. Osborne and others met at Sposato Floor Covering on Friday, you had to wonder. The most immediate question is the fairness of uprooting or destroying businesses people have poured their souls into for the latest twist in a project that so far hasn't delivered much more than an empty moonscape.

Another question, now before the United States Supreme Court, is what constitutes "public use" anyway. It once meant highways and schools; now it's as likely to mean big-box stores and megaprojects. "Everything I and my family have worked for over the past 25 years is at stake because of the way eminent domain is being abused in this state and across the country," Mr. Osborne said. "And I'm not going to sit back and watch it all go up in smoke because the government drank this guy's Kool-Aid."

This guy is Mr. Congel, one of the richest men upstate, who has produced either a marvel of visionary planning or a Taj Mahal of hype. Mr. Congel, who has left behind some huge developments and ugly controversies in the past, unveiled plans for DestiNY USA in 2001.

It was the successor to an earlier, somewhat less grand plan to expand his existing Carousel Mall. It envisioned a project with the square footage of two Empire State Buildings, including 400 stores, 4,000 hotel rooms, a saltwater aquarium, a 65-acre park under a Biosphere-like dome and a miniature Erie Canal. Price tag: $2.2 billion, with construction to start in July 2002.

Except, despite Gov. George E. Pataki's appearance at a ceremonial groundbreaking that July, nothing has been produced other than more and bigger proposals, each one requiring more land and tax breaks.

The technology park is the newest and most urgent proposal, one so pressing Mr. Congel needs 325 acres, including the existing business property just about this instant, even though nearly all the properties are supposed to be in the project's third phase, to happen years from now.

Many brilliant lawyers are arguing over how eminent domain should play out, but any fool could look at the Salina 29 and see three things you might want before the government takes away one person's business for another's: it should be absolutely necessary for a project with a big public payoff; it should be for a project with a near certainty of happening; and uprooted businesses should get not just the value of their property, but enough to reopen elsewhere.

The Salina 29 think DestiNY flunks all three. DestiNY officials and a key local ally, Onondaga County Executive Nicholas J. Pirro, did not return calls for comment.

The truth is, upstate desperately needs big ideas and big investment, and it's likely no one will ever again come up with something that promises so much. "It's like Las Vegas," Mr. Follett said. "You're down to your last 10 bucks. Why not roll the dice and see what happens?"

But the Salina business owners also say they deserve more than being swept away with the trash, and that at the very least, DestiNY should show some results before gobbling up more land.

"Here's the difference," said Philip Jakes-Johnson, who owns Solvents and Petroleum Service. "We're here. We pay our taxes. We built companies and run them without tax breaks. So we don't have what he has. We have something better."


The New York Times: www.nytimes.com