McMahon’s economic proposals draw mixed reaction from legislators, community

McMahon’s economic proposals draw mixed reaction from community

The proposals for a multi-million dollar aquarium and sports complex have sparked a conversation on where the money should be spent.
Published: November 15, 2021
A rendering of Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon's proposed aquarium.
A rendering of Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon's proposed aquarium.

In early October, Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon announced new economic proposals for Syracuse, which included an $85 million aquarium as well as a $25 million sports complex. Since then, the proposals have become a significant topic of conversation for Syracuse legislators and residents alike, drawing both excitement as well as concern.

Recently, Onondaga County legislators elected to slow down McMahon’s proposals in a bipartisan move, placing the money in a contingency fund to be discussed at a later date. While the progress has been temporarily halted, the proposals are still on the table and could come to fruition later on. However, debate continues on whether or not it’s good idea for the city.

Onondaga County Legislator Julie Abbott-Kenan (R), representing District 6, was in agreement with the decision to slow down the proceedings surrounding the aquarium. Despite her interest in the proposals and what they could do for the city, she agreed that more information was needed in order to reach a decision on them.

“I appreciate our county executive being a visionary leader looking for a sustainable income stream versus just a one shot injection,” she said. “However, it’s a lot of money. And we decided…. as a legislature that we really needed to focus and do our due diligence on the actual budget, and put these two projects that deserve to be vetted…. into contingency.”

Abbott-Kenan is excited about the prospect of the aquarium, believing it could be a smart long-term investment for the city. She discussed how new attractions like the aquarium could provide a helpful boost to the city’s tourism industry, which has struggled during the pandemic. She also mentioned how a room occupancy tax, or R.O.T. could be useful to raise money off of nonresidents, allowing for a solid revenue stream that can fund other projects within the city, like housing and the arts.

“ROT is important to us because it’s a steady income stream that allows us to support vital, awesome things that we want in our communities without taxing our own people,” she said. “This is why investing in tourism and attracting people to the area…. room occupancy tax on top of the sales tax revenue tourists generate is just plain smart.”

However, fellow Onondaga County Legislator Vernon Williams (D), representing the 16th district, is more apprehensive about the economic proposals. He says that while he’s not against economic development and bringing in tourists, these projects don’t guarantee success in those goals.

Williams thinks that the money would be better served going to help marginalized communities. He cites a rise in youth crime rates in the city and argues that youth organizations could help keep young people off the streets and give them something to do. He also mentions issues with lead on the South Side as something that this money could solve.

“There’s plenty of things that we could spend $110 million on other than building something that we think can give us revenue,” he said.

CSEA Local 834 Union President Dan Vadala sides more with Williams on the issue. While he thinks an aquarium could be a good idea, he believes the timing of it simply isn’t right and that the city has other issues it should focus on instead. He’s previously called for the city to focus on hiring more employees, as the pandemic has stretched current workers thin.

“The staffing levels and in all departments across Onondaga County are lower than what it used to be two years ago before the pandemic,” Vadala said. “I think we need to hire people back because the employees are more stressed now due to the pandemic and more caseloads.”

Vadala also thinks that the city shouldn’t be splitting focus between developing major projects like the aquarium and other tasks like hiring workers.

“I believe they should be working on one thing at a time and really spend the time on what their actual needs should be,” Vadala said. In addition to hiring more workers, Vadala would support the money going to infrastructure or addressing poverty problems in Syracuse.

Despite the differing opinions on the proposals, both Abbott-Kenan and Williams expressed interest in the potential developments, and agreed that more information was needed on them before any further action is taken. Williams said that he will feel more comfortable with this project when his questions about it are answered.

“How does this help the poorest people in our county?” he said. “If you tell me because of the revenue then show me where is it going to go. Is it going to go to education? Is it going to go to housing? Where is it going, and how much is it going?”

The Onondaga County Legislature will vote on the proposals at a later date, separate from the 2022 budget vote. Williams hopes further conversations will help reach a solution everyone can agree on.

“I think that once we start to really flesh out both projects and the community has their input, you know, the legislature will come,” Williams said.