LONSBERRY: Bob Congel Was A Builder


 Bob Congel was a builder.

               He reshaped the face of Syracuse in a way no one had in a hundred years, and his legacy in brick and mortar and belief will survive him in his hometown for another generation and more.

               Bob Congel was a builder.

               Of malls, of dreams, of a business, of Syracuse. Of places and efforts and a future others could not see and only he could create.

               He came on the scene with some backhoes and bulldozers and the fire-in-the-belly grit that defines Central New York. The Salt City was just a little past ripe, its century of manufacturing might about to crest and fall and crater in that Rust Belt interregnum that awaits the next big thing. It was a season of transition and uncertainty, a bubble about to burst or a reality about to dawn, a fate around the corner and a path that had to be chosen.

               And, as much as anybody, Bob Congel chose the path.

               In the hulks of empty industry, he saw offices and homes and businesses, setting a pattern that has dominated Syracuse development since. In the flats down by the lake, where the waste of generations tainted the land and the water and the future, he saw a retail magnet that would bring jobs and dollars from across the Northeast to his hometown.

               In his day, and in his way, Bob Congel probably did more to stabilize the Syracuse economy and build for its future than anyone else in the business community.

               And that’s not bad for a guy who wore a hardhat to work.

               Or a guy who seemingly had to drag Syracuse kicking and screaming every foot of the way.

               He went into malls when malls were big, and a good chunk of the Northeast was on Congel land when it did its shopping. That was all fun in the food court, but it was bareknuckle competition in the marketplace, as developers and families competed for tenants and market share, and the gamble inherent in development paid off some places but not others. But Bob Congel took the hits and took the wins and, when it came time to do it big, he came home.

               To Oil City, where Syracuse’s greatest asset had been used as an industrial toilet since the days of coal oil and turpentine. He decided to build a mall, a crowning mall, at the south shore of Onondaga Lake, near a creek that was an open sewer when it rained and on soil that was toxic as far as you could dig.

               He didn’t talk about reclaiming the lake, he rolled up his sleeves, unleashed his heavy equipment, and he reclaimed the lake. He physically demonstrated each day to passing commuters that the scars of yesterday’s prosperity could make way for the dream of tomorrow’s development.

               And it rose. First as the Carousel Mall and later as Destiny USA, a lavish, dramatically outsized attraction dedicated in every square foot to the premise that if you build it they will come.

               Literally.

               Bob Congel built a mall the size and magnitude of which could in no way be justified by the population or wealth of Central New York. He built more market than Syracuse had customers. It was a gamble, and a demonstration of faith – not just in himself, but in his hometown.

               And it worked.

               The license plates and the zip codes proved it.

               The thousands of jobs created and lives bettered, and untold sales taxes collected, proved it.

               As did the stabilization of the Congel corridor, with the New Process Gear water tower on one end and the Destiny USA wind turbines on the other, and a chance for rejuvenation between, the prospects for a Solar Street miracle.

               Franklin Square is Franklin Square because of Bob Congel, and the abandoned brick heaps of the 19thCentury are being refitted and reborn for the 21stCentury because of the ideas and the initiative of Bob Congel.

               It wasn’t always perfect, sometimes he stepped on toes, City Hall didn’t always agree. He played smart, he played hard, he played to win. He started with nothing, he ended with something, and he made things better in between.

               And his American dream came true. He created wealth for himself and others. He did his best work at home and gave his greatest gifts to his neighbors. And today people will watch eagles fly above land he reclaimed and repurposed by force of will and commitment to cause.

               Bob Congel was a builder.

               He reshaped the face of Syracuse in a way no one had in a hundred years, and his legacy in brick and mortar and belief will survive him in his hometown for another generation and more.