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Can $100 billion save a struggling Rust Belt city

Now Syracuse is about to become an economic test of whether, over the next several decades, the aggressive government policies—and the massive corporate investments they spur—can both boost the country’s manufacturing prowess and revitalize regions like upstate New York. It all begins with an astonishingly expensive and complex kind of factory called a chip fab.

Micron, a maker of memory chips based in Boise, Idaho, announced last fall that it plans to build up to four of these fabs, each costing roughly $25 billion, at the Clay site over the next 20 years. And on this April day, standing under the tent, CEO Sanjay Mehrotra conjures a vision for what the $100 billion investment will mean: “Imagine this site, which has nothing on it today, will have four major buildings 20 years from now. And each of these buildings will be the size of 10 football fields, so a total of 40 football fields worth of clean-room space.” The fabs will create 50,000 jobs in the region over time, including 9,000 at Micron, he has pledged—“so this is really going to be a major transformation for the community.”

For any city, a $100 billion corporate investment is a big deal, but for Syracuse, it promises a reversal of fortune. Sitting at the northeast corner of the Rust Belt, Syracuse has been losing jobs and people for decades as its core manufacturing facilities shut down—first GE and more recently Carrier, which once employed some 7,000 workers at its East Syracuse plant.

According to Census data, Syracuse now has the highest child poverty rate among large US cities; it has the second-highest rate of families living on less than $10,000 a year.

An abandoned building in Syracuse, which has lost most of its legacy manufacturing.
KATE WARREN

Syracuse, of course, is not alone in its postindustrial malaise. The nation’s economy is increasingly driven by high-tech industries, and those jobs and the resulting wealth are largely concentrated in a few cities; Boston, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, and San Diego accounted for more than 90% of US innovation-sector growth from 2005 to 2017, according to a report by the Brookings Institution. Without these high-tech jobs and with conventional manufacturing long gone as an economic driver, Rust Belt cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Syracuse, and nearby Rochester now top the list of the country’s poorest cities.

The Micron investment will flood billions into the local economy, making it possible to finally upgrade the infrastructure, housing, and schools. It will also, if all goes according to plan, anchor a new semiconductor manufacturing hub in central New York at a time when the demand for chips, especially the type of memory chips that Micron plans to make in Clay, is expected to explode given the essential role they play in artificial intelligence and other data-driven applications.

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