Future uncertain for proposed Microsoft tech hub in Syracuse

Syracuse, N.Y. — City Councilor Michael Greene said it’s “malarkey” that city officials are struggling to get answers from software giant Microsoft on whether it still plans to build a tech hub in Syracuse.

The city, Onondaga County and Syracuse University are all part of a three-year agreement with the company, which announced in 2019 that it planned to establish a “Smart Cities technology hub” in Syracuse. That agreement, known more broadly as the Digital Alliance, was set to include offering a physical space downtown and resources for entrepreneurs and start-up companies, consulting services, digital literacy programs and training on emerging technologies, as well as holding public tech events.

But two years into the agreement, Microsoft hasn’t had “the decency to give us a straight answer on where they stand” with the project, Greene said during a Common Council study session on Wednesday.

It’s unclear whether the company is still interested in building a physical hub here, said Jennifer Tifft, director of strategic initiatives for the mayor’s office. When the pandemic hit, Microsoft instituted a company-wide remote-work policy, so they’re not investing in physical office space right now, she said.

The hub is just a small part of the larger Digital Alliance plan – and Microsoft has followed through on some parts of that agreement, Tifft said.

The company has hired some remote workers in Syracuse; consulted and given in-kind technical support for the city; donated 30 computers to Syracuse community centers; held a virtual, 2-day online educational event focused on tech-sector jobs; and collaborated with SU to offer electronic gaming tournaments. Those accomplishments are all related to the Digital Alliance, Tifft said.

The agreement is non-binding, meaning none of the agencies involved, including Microsoft, is obligated to follow through with any part of the initial plan, including the physical hub, she said.

“It essentially lays out a set of objectives that, two years ago, we thought would be good to focus on over a three-year period,” Tifft said. “Three months after we signed the Digital Alliance, the pandemic hit. So, of course, for all four parties, a lot of priorities shifted.”

Even with the pandemic, plans aren’t moving fast enough, Greene said, adding that Microsoft has only seen growth since Covid hit in early 2020.

“The last few years have been a financial windfall for Microsoft,” he said. “So, the idea that they can’t do things like assist with research, help develop a digital ethics policy, support local fellowships or even open a Syracuse office, whether it’s a physical space or to utilize more remote employees, is nonsense.”

In October, Microsoft surpassed Apple to become the world’s most valuable publicly traded company at more than $2.5 trillion.

That makes what he sees as a lack of progress even more frustrating, Greene said.

“The idea that Covid has made Microsoft unable to live up to its agreement with Syracuse is total malarkey,” Greene said. “They have more resources than ever before. They just don’t feel like living up to their word.”

City officials met with Microsoft in November, but coming up with the full new plan, including proposed completion dates, will take a couple more meetings, Tifft said. She said she expects to have a full plan for 2022 in-hand by the end of the month.

Got a tip, comment or story idea? Call or text Megan Craig at 315-925-7137, email her at [email protected] or send a direct message on Twitter @megcraig1.

Marcy Willis

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