Ask the Expert: Robert Simpson, CenterState CEO

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Ask the Expert, with Robert Simpson, CenterState CEO

For this edition of Ask the Expert, we spoke with Robert Simpson, president and CEO of CenterState Corporation for Economic Development (CenterState CEO) in Syracuse. Here, he talks about the resurgence of Central New York and offers advice to those looking to replicate the region’s success.


Provide a brief overview of CenterState CEO.

We’re Central New York’s business leadership organization, economic development strategist, and Chamber of Commerce all rolled into one. In 2010, we took several nonprofit entities and combined them under one umbrella with the goal of giving the community one place to look to on issues of leadership and economic development.


Tell us about yourself.

Upstate is home. I grew up in Utica and went to D.C. for seven years after college. I was a speech writer for a U.S. Senator and had a great experience but was ready to come home. I moved to Syracuse in 2003 and started working for one of CenterState’s predecessor organizations and continued with CenterState. So, I’ve been doing some version of this job for 21 years.

I would say the main thing I brought to this role was my advocacy for positioning Central New York for the future economy. In 2003, Syracuse was at the tail end of a post-industrial decline. By 2006, it was going to hit rock bottom in its economic and demographic trajectory and we recognized we needed to do something different.


Looks like it worked.

All these cities along the Thruway were ports of call on the Erie Canal. They have a rich history of innovation and manufacturing that enabled economic growth on every corner of the planet. Getting us back to having a seat at the table for critically important conversations about the nation’s economic competitiveness, national security, and global technology has been our North Star and the vision from the very beginning. I think it is pretty exciting to see where we are going now in Central New York.

Our economic development pipeline is as strong as it has been at any point in recent history. We’re currently working on more than $8 billion in projects. We were the first Tech Hubs community awarded in the nation under the CHIPS and Science Act. And, of course, there is Micron selecting Syracuse for the largest single economic investment in the state’s history – and one of the largest in the country. The impact this will have on our community is incredibly profound. Generations of people had been told they had to leave Central New York because there were no good jobs here. The next generation of kids graduating from Central New York high schools will do so knowing that not only are there good jobs here, but leading-edge global technology jobs and everything else that goes with that.


What advice would you give other economic developers?

It is critically important that you develop a deep understanding of your region’s assets. Not what industries you’ve had in the past or the jobs you have today, but really digging into the fundamentals of what your community has to offer—your people, your innovation, your capabilities, your natural resources. If there’s one thing we’ve done well here is strip down the complexities of typical economic development cluster analysis and focus on understanding what products and services people around the world are buying, which industries are growing, and how can we, with our core assets, contribute to that economic landscape? That’s how Central New York has fought its way back into a position of global development.


Any final words?

We need to remember that in this moment of economic growth we have an obligation to make sure all residents of our region benefit from that growth. We’re all aware of the fact that economic growth, historically, has not always benefited all stakeholders equally. We need to ensure that the future growth we’ve fought for introduces a greater level of equity and inclusion. That is something we’re very focused on and believe is critical to our success.


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