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By Brian McMahon
As Western New York debates the role of industrial development agencies in redeveloping distressed downtowns and first-ring suburbs, “adaptive reuse” should be a key strategy.
The term describes the process of converting vacant, abandoned or under-utilized property into a productive use with a new purpose. State Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan recently held a public hearing that touched on this topic.
This debate is especially important in regions like Western New York that are struggling to recover from an economic decline that stretches back six decades. During that span, many cities and towns in the Northeast and Midwest have experienced migration of their population from urban downtowns to the suburbs or to other states.
This migration out of the cities occurred as manufacturing capacity built prior to and during World War II was becoming obsolete and needed to be replaced. And, for the first time, states in the South and Southwest were competing to attract these new investments.
As people and businesses migrated out of New York, many upstate cities were left with abandoned or under-utilized sites. How these communities can best respond to these conditions is at the core of the adaptive reuse discussion.
Economic development organizations such as IDAs and the communities they serve should recognize adaptive reuse as an important component of economic development policy. It should be embraced not just to deal with community eyesores, but to attract new employers and improve downtowns.
Corporate CEOs, whose success depends upon the talents of the creative class – such as high-technology companies, law firms and engineering companies – understand that they are more likely to increase their pool of talented recruits if their company is located in a place that offers a sense of community. So, more and more, they are instructing their site selectors to identify locations that meet those criteria.
That is why investing in downtown revitalization should be an important strategy in every community’s economic development program. Consequently, the economic value of revitalizing downtown corridors extends well beyond the economic value of the projects themselves. Value also lies in creating an environment where businesses want to invest and people want to live.
Importantly, adaptive reuse is a core smart-growth priority. Revitalizing abandoned or under-utilized buildings focuses development in areas with existing infrastructure in downtown areas. This reduces sprawl, mitigates traffic congestion and leads to development of other downtown projects, including mixed use, retail, affordable housing and high-end condo development as the downtown becomes a place where people want to live and work.

Brian McMahon is executive director of the New York State Economic Development Council.