By Danny Schrafel
County leaders are hoping the implementation of a Long Island Innovation Zone – which includes Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as one of its many cogs – will help stem the “brain drain.”
Described as a “comprehensive, regionally-transformative plan to make Suffolk a more attractive place for young people and high-tech businesses,” the Innovation Zone – or I-Zone for short – calls for widespread investments in economic development, downtown revitalization and infrastructure improvements, County Executive Steve Bellone said during a press conference call last week
The plan is designed to jump-start Suffolk County’s economy and make the region more attractive to young people by connecting existing and planned transit-oriented downtowns to research institutions such as Stony Brook University, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
“We have a real vision for our region on how to reverse the brain drain, how to build an innovation economy with unprecedented regional collaboration,” Bellone said.
The infrastructure improvements for Cold Spring Harbor – a shuttle bus linking the lab to the train station – would be among the easiest to implement in the $350-million plan, and would come after much of the major four-part plan is underway.
“A quick shuttle link off of Cold Spring Harbor rail station, and you’re linking up Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory more effectively to this innovation zone,” Bellone said.
The plan jelled after Governor Andrew Cuomo’s called for leveraging the state college system for economic and educational purposes through a series of grant programs and the START-UP NY tax-free business zone program.
By building the I-Zone, the goal is to create a “quality of life ecosystem” which is attractive to employers and millennials who have been leaving Long Island in record numbers of late, Bellone said.
According to the Rauch Foundation’s Long Island Index, from 2000 to 2009, Long Island lost 15 percent of its 25-34 year old population, while the nation as a whole saw an average gain of 5 percent
“The concept primarily is that we have a region of abundant resources and incredible assets,” the county executive said. “Despite all of those assets we’ve been unable to keep or attract young people… that are critical to building an innovation economy.”
The concept complements Connect Long Island, an effort spearheaded by Bellone through the county to link resources which has a greater focus on western Suffolk. That project aims to tie together all of the region’s assets, such as universities, job centers, labs and parks, through mass transit enhancements and creating vibrant, walkable, transit-oriented downtowns, according to the county executive.
Bus rapid transit lines envisioned in Connect LI, including one connecting the Huntington LIRR station to Amityville, Bellone said, would create vital north-south mass transit connections.
The difference between Connect Long Island and I-Zone, Bellone said, is the regional participation, involving input from towns, research institutes and the Long Island Rail Road, emblematic of a “new willingness by regional leaders to come out of their silos to work to implement a comprehensive plan for the region,” he said during a conference call Thursday.
The result is a counterpunch to the dreaded “brain drain,” which he blamed on a lack of high-paying jobs, affordable rental housing and high costs “mixing together in different ways and different degrees for different people to push young people out of the region.”
The four key projects to creating the Innovation Zone are building a multimodal roadway on the Nicolls Road corridor, the construction of the Ronkonkoma Hub, beginning planning and predevelopment of a north-side terminal at Long Island Macarthur Airport to connect it to rail and BRT and connecting Brookhaven National Laboratory to public transportation.
Bellone said shovels could be in the ground as soon as next year.
“It’s just a question of cobbling together the resources to make it happen,” he said. “This doesn’t require any moon-shot type projects. The fact of the matter is that all of the moon-shot stuff is here.”