Bob Herz to head the South Side Innovation Center

Walt Shepperd 02/05/10More articles
Robert Herz wants to see your vision become a reality.
Entrepreneur on board:
Robert Herz is the new director fo the South Side Innovation Center on South Salina Street in Syracuse.

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of interviews with people prominent in areas on the agenda for the city under a new administration. This week the discussion of development is with Bob Herz, the new director of the South Side Innovation Center.

You started with journalism, moved to state Senate staff work, now you’re director of a business incubator. Has this been a logical progression?

No. The whole thing’s been serendipity. My semi-public career really started at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. My wife said, “Let’s go back to Syracuse.” I start looking for a job with an MFA in creative writing, poetry. Well, well, well let me tell you. There was that thing in the Seventies where you were “overqualified.” I started lying on the applications. I wanted a job so bad, I just wanted to be able to even turn one down.

I wound up being matre’d at the Hotel Syracuse for awhile, flipping burgers for awhile down in the Valley, doing some pipe fitter stuff for awhile. I was all over the place. Bill Cotter hired me, and suddenly, here I am on nightside at the Syracuse Newspapers on one of those old gigantic Underwoods, pounding away. Doing obits. Doing general assignment stuff.

One day I make up an obit about a guy in Utica who dies accidentally falling into a cement truck. Mario Rossi, the night editor, reads it and is about to process it when I tell him I made it up. He says, “I think you’re ready for dayside.” I spend a wonderful year there learning the craft. The Business Journal called one day and said they’d pay more money and let me go home at night. I did that for a year.

Then Ken Simon called. You know this part of the story. He said, “We’ve got to take the New Times more mainstream.” Then he thought about it and decided he didn’t want it that much mainstream. Afterward he told me he brought you back, I think, with the idea that Herz and Shepperd wouldn’t get along, and that tension would create the product he wanted. But Shepperd and I became friends, and the tension became between us and the rest of the staff.

Then things got political?

Things didn’t work out at the New Times the way we hoped it would. I left, started collecting unemployment, was going back to writing, and one day Tarky Lombardi calls to have lunch. He offers me a job. I said, “Republicans, politics, government, not really—in answer to your question about logical progression—where my career is going. So I took the job for six months and two years later I’m running the office. I just stayed on and kept on doing it.

There was a major element of development out of that experience with the renovation of the Carnegie Building and the hoped for creation of the “Avenue of the Arts.” Does the progression begin there?

Tarky had left the Senate. We jump forward into the Nineties. I was working half time at the Senate. We were looking at what could happen with buildings around here. We came up with some ideas for the Dey Brothers building, and they pretty much put those into play.

We then looked at the building that’s now the Media Unit studio and the Carnegie building. We wanted to do a community linked learning center. We had some conversations with the school superintendent, and redid the {Carnegie} building for $3 million, which was a lot less than anybody thought we could do it for.

The Syracuse school district had such enormous needs, so we wanted to start with the MSA {former Metropolitan School for the Arts} building because it made such sense having been an arts school. The school district, and then the city, kept adding more buildings. We wound up with a proposal for six buildings, for about $30 million to be done in about two years with a lease back to the school district.

The numbers actually worked. But it was unlike things that people had tried in this area before. It was a big idea, and I think it got some people unsettled. When the wind really started to blow hard, we just couldn’t hold it. We didn’t have the financial staying power. Bob Congel went through some of the same kind of turbulence, the back push. Bob has been able to sustain because he has the resources to keep on going. Had we had the resources, we probably could have got there at the end of the day.

What did you learn from that experience about development in Syracuse?
I think I’ve learned more now than I think I knew then. Then I was really bothered by what I had seen, because it was such a good idea. The output was ultimately two schools that had been ignored for a long time {Dr. King and McKinley-Brighton) suddenly got done. But they did the two schools for $36 million, not in two, but in four years. Our idea finally got encapsulated in something several years later when they created the Construction Authority. Buffalo had seen what we tried to do here, took our idea, created a school authority, then Syracuse followed the Buffalo idea.

Later I bought the University College building and redid it for a charter school. I learned a bunch of things, obviously not as much as I should have. One: development is a process. Two: with an idea in which you’ve got public interest, you have to bring the public along more slowly.

I had not realized until afterwards how big a change what we had proposed was from the way people did business around here. In the nature of political discourse, the ag’iners are always going to be louder than the other folks. And the people who have a stake in that process—which in that case were the kids—might not really have a voice.

How do you take all of that and apply it to the South Side Innovation Center?
I wrote the original version of Empire Zones--they were called Opportunity Zones then—so I’ve worked in a lot of areas of law, and tax credits, and areas that apply. What I know is that you can start here and get there. I know that if you start with an idea, that idea can become something. You just have to take the position that it’s someone else’s job to say no. You also have to know when your idea is ripe. What’re you doing here. How far you going? If you jump too soon, you can create problems.

I know where the access points are helping people look at money or capital or access to state contracts. I’m not going to do it, but I can help them get to the point where they can. I know about that from 30 years in the bureaucracy. My career in the Senate, to a large extent, has been built on consensus. You have an idea, you have to flesh it out, sell it to your own people. Then you have to sell the other people. It all starts in one simple place.

What’s the problem you’re trying to solve? You don’t know where the next problem is coming from. But the problems are always solvable.

Reach Walt Shepperd at city@cnylink.com. He is the senior Editor of the City Eagle and the Executive Producer of the Media Unit.

CATEGORY: General Business
TAGS: Bob Herz, to head the SSIC,Entrepreneur on board,
EDITION: The Eagle

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