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Let Hudson's Anniversary Connect the Entire State 3-11-07

March 11, 2007

By Henry L. Miller
Times Union

Gov. Eliot Spitzer was right to split the leadership of New York's economic development apparatus between upstate and downstate, but tying the state more closely together -- from Buffalo to New York City -- should simultaneously be a high priority.
The governor's decision to appoint, for the first time, upstate and downstate chairs for the Empire State Development Corp. reflects the fact the two economies have not only become separated but are now effectively divorced. New York City's economy is booming, while upstate's is increasingly bleak. The appointment of an economic development professional to the upstate position is encouraging, and locating him in Buffalo ensures he will have a much fuller sense of the challenges and opportunities than any chairman in New York City could possibly have.
At the same time, the state needs to be better connected. Buffalo and New York City should be seen as bookends that need to be pushed more tightly together to be effective. As that happens, the state's other cities and regions
will become more closely connected as well.
A great opportunity presents itself in 2009 with the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's exploration of the river that now bears his name. The opportunity can be maximized if the occasion celebrates the extended reach of the Hudson River (through the Erie Canal) from New York City to Albany to Buffalo.
After all, it was the creation of the Erie Canal that gave the Hudson River direct access to the Midwest and made it the economic engine that drove New York's economy to greatness.
Five years ago, the state created a commission that is planning celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Hudson's exploration, the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain's exploration of what is now Lake Champlain and the 200th anniversary of Robert Fulton's invention of the first commercially successful steamboat. The commission's focus is on the Hudson River and points north -- to Quebec. But the commission's theme -- "Exploration and Connection" -- leaves open the opportunity to connect the entire state through this celebration.
To do that, the focus of the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial (a marketing mouthful) should be distilled to a celebration of "the Hudson River's power to connect." That would still embrace the Fulton-Champlain components, while enabling the rest of the state to participate as well.
The challenge would then be to create anniversary events that go beyond the predictable re-enactment voyage with replica ships or a flotilla of sailboats in New York harbor. Anniversary events should be created that energize the entire state, drawing it together, highlighting its assets and attracting national and international media coverage and tourism.
New York City's hosting of the 1992 Democratic National Convention shows how it can be done. For that occasion, the public-private hosting organization, known as New York '92, created three promotional events that not only ensured the extraordinary success of the hosting but continue to promote New York 15 years later.
Those events are: Restaurant Week, which began by offering delegates and New Yorkers a $19.92 prix fixe lunch at premier restaurants throughout the city and continues to this day with predictable, annual, price increases in the meantime; Broadway on Broadway, the first free outdoor concert by Broadway theaters, held in Times Square with VIP seating for delegates and a first-time audience of 50,000 New Yorkers; and Fashion Week, which started in 1992 as "New York is Fashion" and has grown into a world-renowned celebration.
The opportunity for creating similarly effective events to promote the entire state and pull it together is even greater. There's not only New York City to work with but all of New York, connected through the extended river.
The events would have to be different from what New York City did -- designed uniquely for this occasion -- but they could be just as compelling. Music and film festivals could cross the state; cultural institutions could be linked; environmental awareness and improvement could be promoted, as well as waterfront access. With New York's waterways, the recreational opportunities are endless.
The key would be to create events that celebrate attributes of New York that are intrinsic to the state -- just like the river -- and that have widespread appeal. They could take place along the river or in hundreds of communities connected to it -- either literally or figuratively -- through Lake
Champlain, the Erie Canal, Long Island Sound and the Finger Lakes, among others.
The greatest challenge may be in seeing the true magnitude of the opportunity -- understanding it can be used both to promote the explorations and to pull the entire state together. New York is quick to compete to host major events like national political conventions, the Olympics and the Super Bowl, and that's as it should be. But we should not fail to maximize, as creatively as possible, occasions that are already ours.
Governor Spitzer should seize this opportunity by expanding it to become a vehicle for uniting the entire state. New York's hosting of the 1992 Democratic Convention was hailed by The New York Times as a "watershed event for New York tourism." Let's turn the 400th anniversary of Hudson's exploration -- a real "watershed" event -- into an occasion that could once again enable a mighty river to bring us all together.
Henry Miller, chief operating officer of Goodman Media International in New York City, was CEO of New York '92.
All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2007, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.