SCHENECTADY Schenectady and General Electric were held up as examples of progress and innovation for the rest of the country Friday, as President Barack Obama talked up his plans for economic growth through exports and smart planning.
“You guys are a model of what’s possible,” Obama told a crowd that applauded at nearly every pause.
He said the rest of the country must duplicate the partnerships that made it possible for GE to build a battery plant and the renewable energies headquarters at the Schenectady campus.
The partnership wasn’t easy. In the recent past, after court challenges over GE’s tax assessment, relations were so strained that General Electric vowed not to add anything to its campus. Instead, it began demolishing buildings, slowly reducing its taxable value.
It took years for a new team of politicians at the city, county and Metroplex Development Authority to persuade GE to change its stance. Tax breaks and a $5 million Metroplex grant sweetened the pot and GE poured $145 million in new investment into Schenectady. That’s only led to about 1,000 new jobs — a far cry from the 40,000 employed by GE decades ago — but politicians said GE is finally growing again.
Obama said Schenectady did exactly the right thing in offering millions in tax breaks to encourage many more millions in investment.
“And that’s why, as part of the tax cut compromise that I signed at the end of the year, we provided incentives for businesses to make new capital investments — and in fact GE is investing $13 million in advanced manufacturing at this plant, taking advantage of those tax breaks,” he said.
Investing to grow
House Democrats have argued for years that U.S. companies could afford to manufacture products here instead of overseas if they had incentives to modernize their plants.
“We want an economy that’s fueled by what we invent and what we build,” he said. “We’re going back to Thomas Edison’s principles. We’re going to build stuff and invent stuff.”
But just building things here isn’t enough, Obama said.
“For America to compete around the world, we need to export more goods around the world,” he said. “That’s where the customers are. It’s that simple.”
He cited GE’s contract to build three turbines for a customer in Samalkot, India. GE is adding 15 to 25 jobs in Schenectady to help fill that order.
Obama called that contract “a perfect example” of the importance of exports. “When a company sells products overseas, it leads to hiring on our shores. The deal in Samalkot means jobs in Schenectady.”
Still, 15 to 25 jobs isn’t going to replace the thousands of jobs lost in the area. Obama acknowledged that there is much work left to do.
“It’s a great thing the economy is growing, but it’s not growing fast enough yet to make up for the damage that was done by the recession,” he said. So he wants to put the economy into “overdrive.”
Immelt to lead
He named General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to lead a new group of business owners, labor leaders and economists to help him ramp up the economy.
The group, dubbed the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, will focus on innovation, particularly clean energy manufacturing, and education to train new workers, Obama said.
It will also focus on an issue close to Mayor Brian U. Stratton’s heart: the crumbling infrastructure in the country’s Rust Belt cities, where manufacturing once held sway.
Obama finished his speech by assuring the workers that his plan would work.
“This is America,” he said. “The future belongs to us. And you at this plant, you are showing us the way forward.”
The speech left some listeners brimming with hope.
“He made me so very proud and feeling like there’s lots of hope for the future, and that we’re going to be OK,” said YWCA Executive Director Rowie Taylor. She’d never thought about the power of exports before. Now she’s a believer.
“It sounded like such a matter-of-fact, obvious solution. Duh! Why aren’t we selling stuff to other people?” she said. “Let’s go and do this! I thought he was brilliant.”
Business owner Richard Olender, who put a welcome sign outside his mattress store in downtown Schenectady, wasn’t as willing to believe Obama’s plan will work.
“He said all the right things,” Olender said. “Let’s just hope it comes to fruition.”
For others, Obama’s speech was validation.
U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, was overjoyed to hear his message about modernizing manufacturing facilities in Obama’s speech.
“They can do it for less cost, but we can do it more efficiently, more effectively,” Tonko said.
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He noted that while the country has lost about a third of its manufacturing in the last 10 years, there are still millions of manufacturing jobs here. “We just need to invest in our manufacturing so we manufacture smarter,” he said. “If we’re smarter, no one can beat us.”
He said Obama’s focus is politically doable: the federal government could invest in research with conditions requiring local manufacturing, or offer tax incentives with similar conditions, he said.
“I think there are ways you can attach the manufacturing piece,” Tonko Said.