Monday, November 7, 2011

The Maltese Falcon

I want to talk about economic development. This topic might seem a bit afield for me, as I’m known more for my work in ethics law enforcement. For a long time, however, I was a city manager, a job that touches on all aspects of administration, including job retention and creation.

What I know from that experience is that there are people in the world who try to take advantage of the intense desire of politicians to be perceived as doing something about our state’s dire economic problems. These people are often well-intentioned. They are often highly-educated, and very well spoken. But when you look closely at their track record, you often find that there’s no clear success, no big hit.  

This observation on my part is by way of commenting on an article today by the Albany Times Union’s Jim Odato. In a very, very understated way, Jim wrote about a development at the massive chip fab project in Malta. The people behind the project want to sell tax credits to generate cash – a clear sign that they might be having some financial problems.

This project is generally regarded as a tremendous coup for the state. It’s believed to be the capital region’s best hope for a prosperous high tech future. But for the longest time, I’ve had the suspicion that this particular project, which is being supported with billions in tax dollars, might be … well, I might as well just come out and say it … a giant boondoggle.  

I’ve expressed this notion to some smart people I know, and nobody really wants to believe it. “No, no, it can’t be. There’s a lot of activity up there in Malta.”

Only once did I hear something to the contrary, but it wasn’t direct. I was a friend-of-a-friend type thing that was fascinating, but unsubstantiated. This person told me he knew of a senior R&D guy from Virginia who insisted that Malta’s proposed product line was already antiquated and that there’s no way this plant will ever become operational. 

Now, again, I can’t vouch for this person’s harsh assessment of the project and the underlying technology. I really don’t know what the true situation in Malta is, but I know this: Based on the Odato article alone, people in government need to start asking some hard questions. 

And while they are at it, they should look closely at the celebrated nano-tech center as well. Again, billions of dollars have been invested in the center. Maybe it’s money well spent. Maybe there are all kinds of spin-off benefits. Maybe it’s the smartest investment our state has ever made.

And maybe, just maybe, it’s a situation in which the payoff from the investment of tax dollars doesn’t quite match up with the promises that were made to obtain the money. And if so, should the state continue to invest? I think these are fair questions for both Malta and the nano-tech center. I really hope the answers is yes, but either way, we need to know what the truth is.

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