An Interview with Mayor Ben Walsh: Syracuse Surge, Police Community Relations, Impact of COVID-19


“Each streetlight now has a smart node affixed to it that allows us to transfer data across the network, which spans the entire city.  So, all of that technology infrastructure is now in place. In many ways that was the foundational investment for Surge.” Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh

On the second day of the first summit on the Syracuse Surge, urbancny.com spoke with Mayor Ben Walsh. Our purpose was to receive an update as to where they are in implementing a plan that shapes our city’s future. There are phases of the Syracuse Surge that are visible, from Street Lights to Websites, part of an extensive network of partnerships and relationships.  Therefore, we begin with a basic question…

urbancny: What’s going on with the Syracuse Surge?

Walsh: “We’re actually on the second day of our Syracuse Surge summit. One of the early action items we had identified when we established our partnership with Microsoft. Number one to try to bring together our local tech ecosystem and to increase awareness locally about the innovation happening and the opportunity locally here. The other part was to bring our global partners, specifically Microsoft and JPMorgan Chase into the mix so they can see what’s happening here in Syracuse and so our local partners could begin networking, develop relationships with our global partners and hopefully identify some opportunities for collaboration.

One thing that I was excited about that I heard from both JPMorgan Chase and Microsoft, the two things that they feel differentiate Syracuse from other communities that they work in. One is the alignment of leadership, how rare it is to have the public sector aligned among the Mayor, County Executive and the State and you have the private sector business community aligned, and the non profit Ed’s and Med’s community, everybody’s pushing in the same direction. Given how volatile politics in general is around the country, I think the value of working in a community where politics aren’t an issue is significant for these folks. The value of being able to work in a community where politics is not an issue is significant for these folks. Another thing that they said, they really like is the inclusive approach that we’re taking to Syracuse Surge.

By the way we define it, Syracuse Surge is our strategy for Inclusive growth in the new economy. I think they see and appreciate the intentional approach to engage with XBE companies with a diverse entrepreneurial community and that’s important. As is on the Workforce Development side, as we’re trying to prepare our community for the jobs of the new economy. Often times when communities try to attract high tech sector businesses, it’s always about how do we bring people in. The Surge prioritizes lifting up the people that are here and understanding that in the under and unemployed throughout the city, we have a real asset. That if we can do skills training and align the skills with the jobs that are available, again we can make that growth a lot more inclusive and benefit everyone.”

urbancny: When will people start seeing the impact of the Syracuse Surge? There are so many parts to it. What can you tell people about that?

LED Technology Street lights

“The first thing I would tell people is to Look out their window at night and they’ll see one of the first investments, that was the streetlight network. Over the past year we’ve acquired all of our 17,000 streetlights, we’ve retrofitted nearly all of them to LED lights. Part of that process, each streetlight now has a smart node affixed to it that allows us to transfer data across the network, which spans the entire city.  So, all of that technology infrastructure is now in place. In many ways that was the foundational investment for surge.

Now, it’s a question of what we do next with that technology.  The LED lights in and of themselves are already saving taxpayers significantly. The Data sharing part of it, the next step, we’re going to be affixing sensors to a number of our lights, that are going to measure different things throughout the city that are going to help inform our service delivery. They’ll be measuring things like the level of Onondaga Creek so we can better predict when and where we may have flooding issues. It’s going to measure air quality, going to measure street conditions, we’re going to be improving the services we’re delivering to our constituents, doing it smarter and more efficiently.

We can use that data to create new partnership opportunities. We might find there are certain challenges that we found using that technology, working with partners for solutions.

We’re going to be piloting some WiFi Hot Spots throughout the city. One thing that we know especially during the pandemic is how much of a challenge internet connectivity is in the city, particularly for some of our more marginalized neighborhoods. We think that this is going to help us to identify some city-wide solutions for internet connectivity. So, I think we’re going to start out with maybe 5 Hot Spots at different areas, likely around schools, we’ll learn from that then we’ll figure out how we can come up with city-wide solutions.”

City of Syracuse and Verizon’s 5G Network: A Beginning

Part of our transformation includes becoming one of the first cities in the nation to become 5G. Mayor Walsh explained the Verizon launch and their 5G commitment to Syracuse.

Walsh: “Verizon just announced the launch of their 5G network in Syracuse. There are now areas of the city where people have the capability with their smart phones and have the plan with Verizon, can benefit from ultra-speed 5G, we’re one of the first cities in the country to roll that out. Even the way in which we did that, we were intentional about where we rolled it out first in our city, if you look at the map you’ll see the areas of focus is on the south side and on the North side where we know connectivity is among the biggest challenges.   It’s one service that you have to pay for, so by no means is it a comprehensive solution. It’s another element of technology infrastructure that we’re laying in the city that will help to support all of these other initiatives.”

All of these elements, they’re all different ways in which we’re trying to make our city more connected, and smarter. We won’t be where we need to be until affordable internet access is ubiquitous throughout the city of Syracuse, so it’s affordable and equitable so everyone can benefit from it. We’re not there yet, we got a long way to go, but we’ve made significant strides just over the past year.”

urbancny.com asked Verizon for a statement regarding their timetable for the ongoing rollout of 5G in Syracuse. *

“Building out the network is a time, labor and capital intensive process that requires the deployment of fiber to each cell site. The network represents our commitment to continued investment in Syracuse.

We expect to serve significant portions of the city, but for competitive reasons can’t talk about our future build out plans.”  – Verizon 

*The original agreement with the city of Syracuse is for a five year deployment period in which 600 cells will be installed.

How are we going to handle Police Community relations given the toxic atmosphere?

Walsh: “It’s a challenge, one of the most significant challenges of our time. And it’s not unique to the city, it’s across the country and in some cases across the world. It’s a work in progress. When I took office, almost three years ago now, improving police community relations and police accountability was a priority. That’s why we engaged in a year-long community-based process to select our police chief. That was really the first step in our process. Since Chief Buckner has been on board, we’ve been hard at work reforming the department introducing new policies, procedures, practices; addressing areas of admitted weaknesses in SPD, overhauling the Office of Professional Standards or internal Affairs, as most people know it. Trying to negotiate a Union contract that gets officers living in the city. All of the things that I’ve heard about that are important to the community. What we’ve all realized in light of the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed; Is that we needed to do more, and we needed to do it faster. There’s a great sense of urgency around it.

The sometimes toxic atmosphere, I think it’s the result of not doing enough in the past that has led to this boiling point. Our goal has been, as much as we can, to try to make sure that the community is aware of what we have been doing and we’re not just starting on the process now. We agreed that more needs to be done, so we’re trying to show them a greater sense of urgency on our side.”

Police Reform Tracking Portal

In an effort to maintain transparency the city created a new web portal where reform information will be available to the public.

Walsh: “A new web portal tracks all of our police reform efforts. Back on June 19th I issued my first executive order on Police Reform with 16 separate actions, it gives you a timeline for implementation. Along with doing the work, we’re trying to do a better job being transparent with the work we are doing and communicate to people how seriously we’re taking this.”

We were doing so well before COVID-19 how do we get back on track?

Walsh: “I remind myself and I remind others that all the ingredients that were in place pre-pandemic are still in place. I talked earlier about that alignment of leadership; of the public sector, private sector, and non-profit sector, are still in place. The partners that we’ve engaged on the local level and the global level; Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, Verizon, JMA Wireless, they’re all still engaged, they’re all still here, they’re all still investing. We’ve all had to adjust our plans and our projects, but we’re all still committed to them.

I think that the seeds that we planted in all of these areas before the pandemic are beginning to bear fruit and ultimately are going to help accelerate our recovery as we hopefully get a vaccine and get past the pandemic. It’s really hard right now, and it can be frustrating at times, but that’s what keeps me bullish on the future of Syracuse. Is that all of those ingredients and all of those partners are still at the table. We’re just a little distracted right now let’s just focus on the long-term vision.”

Breaking News: The Mayor has just announced a Schedule for city-wide furloughs. Mayor Walsh Announces Schedule for Citywide Furlough Days to Offset COVID-19 Revenue Losses. On the four citywide furlough days, City of Syracuse administrative offices will close, but all emergency services and essential operations will continue to be delivered.