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A Building Boon

Syracuse, N.Y.—quickly earning the accolade as "Emerald City" for environmental breakthroughs—recently staged a Healthy Buildings Conference for academic researchers and other professionals from architecture, building products and services, public health, urban planning and environmentalist types.

By Ilona Kauremszky

GREEN IS THE NEW BLACK, Al Gore tells us. Sheryl Crow supports environmental causes, and hundreds of other celebrities are leaving their green thumbprint on the growing eco trend.

So what does a former industrial town in upstate New York do? Syracuse, quickly earning the accolade as "Emerald City" for environmental breakthroughs, staged a Healthy Buildings Conference for academic researchers and other professionals from architecture, building products and services, engineering, indoor environmental quality, public health, urban planning and environmentalist types.

And the timing couldn’t be better, report city insiders. Like so many manufacturing towns in turbulent times, old businesses have dried up—but Syracuse is using this reality to help bolster a new economy, one of sustainable development. Currently a building boom is under way in and around central New York State, where Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is big in housing and business developments.

It’s all about the new economy, says David Holder, president of the Syracuse CVB, describing breakthroughs that include a medical biotech research center and the headquarters of the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems.

"There are all kinds of incredible partnerships blossoming," he said. "So much of what we have with the Syracuse Center of Excellence and so much of the development of the area is building on that sustainability base, employing different industries that are all about the generation of natural energy and the generation of building developments that can be used elsewhere in building these types of buildings."

The center will showcase the city’s eco-advances and provide a blueprint for cities across the globe. The site is on reclaimed industrial brownfields, a type of real property, the expansion, redevelopment or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence of hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, cleaning up, reinvesting in and redeveloping these properties shift development pressures away from undeveloped land, improving and protecting the environment. Federal officials say "brownfields redevelopment returns non-productive real estate assets to productive use, promoting the economic development of many of the nation’s most economically distressed areas and regions."

The Syracuse Center of Excellence certainly intrigued Healthy Buildings. HB2009—own by the International Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate (ISIAQ)—is considered to be the "Olympics for indoor air quality" and is held every three years worldwide. The theme was quite simply that: healthy buildings. Approximately 800 delegates from nearly 40 countries attended HB2009 Sept. 13-17 in Syracuse, N.Y. The five-day conference was held at the city’s acclaimed Oncenter Complex and had six-to-eight daily track sessions in addition to an expo, a conference first.

"We wanted to engage the business community to look at the green technologies that are on the market and to showcase with about 100 exhibitors and also through a series of programs that included keynote speakers, workshops, product and service demonstrations and opportunities for individuals from academia and business to work with the U.S. Department of Commerce and representatives from the Empire State Development Corp. to see what opportunities and resources are there to help build new partnerships with business-to-business and with the academic resources in this country," said Tammy Rosanio, project manager and assistant to the executive director for the Syracuse Center of Excellence, describing the convention’s three-day Oppex forum where delegates learned about leading research and technology developments and networked with national and global leaders in the fields of indoor air quality and healthy built environments.

About a year leading up to the last Healthy Buildings Conference in Lisbon, the movers and shakers of the Syracuse Center of Excellence researched their case then took the RFP to the ISIAQ and made formal presentations outlining the reasons why Syracuse should be chosen over other undisclosed cities.

"The expectations were high. We didn’t walk in blind. We had actually contacted various members to see what was involved, what was the level of commitment, so that we were both benefitting our members," said Dr. Suresh Santanam, a member of ISIAQ and deputy executive director of Syracuse Center of Excellence, who took the lead role in securing the bid. "I first presented to the board, then presented it to the general membership and during the process explained how Syracuse was an hour away from major hubs, how this conference could bring a diverse cross section of individuals from the indoor air quality field and how Syracuse and Central New York were experiencing a transformation in healthy buildings."

Since the start of the Healthy Buildings Conference in 1988 in Stockholm, the U.S. has played host to the conference only twice.

Rosanio knew they had challenges.

"So we ensured appropriate levels of services were available in a mid-sized city for a conference of this size," she said. "Our community really supported this conference. We even had retired workers from places such as Carrier who wished to volunteer."

Santanam says that Syracuse’s location in Central New York was another great asset because conference delegates and their spouses were in close proximity to a variety of incentive travel options from wine tours around the Finger Lakes to a visit to Niagara Falls.

According to Rachel Alcaro, CMP, convention sales manager for the Syracuse CVB, the city hadn’t witnessed a conference on such an international scale before.

"One of the challenges is language," she said. "We had 40 countries participate. To offset the language barrier, volunteer interpreters—mostly students from Syracuse University—were on hand to provide translation services. Along with language barriers, these people are coming from faraway countries, and quite frankly, our local banks are not equipped to handle money exchange to this degree with this variety. We informed the foreign participants prior to their arrival that they should exchange their money to U.S. currency while at home."

Another challenge for the academic-heavy conference was how to get 800 delegates into a concentrated area.

"Our exhibitors at the Oppex were there mostly to discuss their products and developments, limiting the size of their displays," said Shandrist Hillsman, HB2009’s meeting planner and president of Ascension Event Management. "The conference scheduling—with its multiple tracks and expo addition—was designed to help alleviate potential bottlenecks around heavily trafficked areas. We had so much going on that people were spread out throughout the conference."

Still with the tracks comprised of plenary, technical and social programs that each had additional forums and sessions, space was a challenge.

"With the exception of the War Memorial, we used all the space at the Oncenter Complex, which included the Convention Center and the Civic Center Theaters," Rosanio said.

Another curveball focused on the Syracuse Center of Excellence headquarters, a venue that was still under construction at the time of the conference. For Dr. Santanam, this building was a dream come true and was one of the selling points to secure the conference.

"We talked about having a new headquarters and said this would be available for the attendees to see what we can offer," he said.

But construction took longer than anticipated, and organizers were not prepared to change their course. Donning hard hats and using safety precautions, tours were scheduled during the conference and open to limited group size.

"About 25 people went with a tour coordinator and tour manager," Rosanio said. "We also had representatives on site from the various companies involved in the design and construction of the building showcasing their products and ready to respond to inquiries directly on the floor."

While principally geared to the academic world, HB2009 was not ready to dismiss the corporate significance.

"We looked at companies that we already had an existing relationship, some big some small, a nice representation of companies that are known locally and internationally," Rosanio said. "These companies [sponsors] are specialists in their field and have an interest in this."

Local sponsors such as Carrier, IBM and Siemens jumped on the chance to contribute to the conference despite the economic downturn.

"We hadn’t really noticed the economy affecting our sponsors, and in fact, our participant registrations were close to what we had projected initially when we started this project," Rosanio said.

While the bones of a factory town are apparent, the transitioning "green" city still has hurdles to overcome when alternative transportation is considered, such as delegate transfers. Initially, the idea was to allow attendees the option to walk or bike to the conference.

"We quickly scrapped that, because in Syracuse we were afraid drivers wouldn’t see them," Shandrist said.
In an attempt to reduce the carbon footprint, scheduled timed transfers to and from the convention center were made.

"We wanted to be as sustainable as possible," she said, adding that USB flash drives with complete conference documents were distributed as well as using green practices for other conference materials: T-shirts from organic cotton, custom-made neck wallets from 100 percent recycled materials and pre-owned or GREENGUARD certified furniture pieces.

Sandra Baker, vice president of sales and marketing for the Oncenter Complex, added that water was provided upon request for the closing dinner, and no water bottles were available at the conference.

A leader in implementing green practices in the meeting and event industry, the three-venue complex has also introduced a revolutionary form of composting using local upstate worm farms.

"We get these great big bins, and all the scraps from this conference were thrown into these worm bins, taken to the farm and when these scraps biodegrade, the compost returns to us and is actually used in our gardens," Baker said.

Now that’s a healthy building. One+

ILONA KAUREMSZKY is a weekly travel columnist and the former editor of Corporate Meetings & Events.

What’s New in Syracuse
• When completed in 2010, the 60-room Hotel Skyler will be the first LEED-certified hotel in Central New York and will offer preferred parking for partial zero emission cars along with room-key controlled lighting and thermal comfort among other energy efficiencies.
• Syracuse has several revitalization projects under way which include a US$2.4 million renovation project on the 100 block of West Fayette Street and the multiuse, residential, LEED-certified Jefferson Clinton Commons building in Armory Square.
Holiday Inn Syracuse/Liverpool, in the town of Salina, underwent a few nips and tucks with the recent completion of a $20 million expansion project that includes an extra 10,000 square feet of meeting space, along with the erection of a 123-unit Staybridge Suites Hotel.

Transportation Tips
• Located north of the city, Syracuse Hancock International Airport is approximately 15 minutes by car from downtown and serves upstate New York with seven major airlines offering approximately 250 daily arrivals and departures.
• Forget about making early morning drives to Rochester or New York City for flights. The City of Syracuse and the Metropolitan Development Association—with help from central New York companies and a U.S. Department of Transportation grant—have created FlySyracuse.com, a new fly program to promote lower airfares departing from Syracuse’s local airport.

Fun Facts
• In 2007, the Go Green Earth Summit named Syracuse the Go Green Large City of the Year.
• Before Dinosaur BBQ sauce, Syracuse’s big claim to fame was salt, and "the city that salt built" was considered one of the biggest salt suppliers in the U.S.
• Don’t be surprised if you walk down a yellow brick road in Chittenango, 13 miles east of the Syracuse airport. Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum was born here.