Engineering journey

The Engineering Innovation Lab on SUNY New Paltz campus nears completion. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

The Mid-Hudson REDC’s first-ever village to receive the $10-million state DRI grant awarded annually to a municipality in the region. The application has been discussed at a joint town-village board meeting. As village mayor, I put together the section on engineering from the village’s 2019 Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) grant application.

New Paltz’s multi-decade engineering history includes a description of the evolution of the programs within the School of Science and Engineering at SUNY New Paltz. It also documents the history and expansion of the privately held software engineering firm SAMsix in New Paltz. The entire story is a fascinating one.

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Three noteworthy developments are highlighted in the application narrative.

In the early 1980s governor Mario Cuomo played an important role in advocating for SUNY New Paltz’s school of engineering. SUNY New Paltz’s vice-president for enrollment management David Eaton has documented the engineering program’s controversial start and then-governor Mario Cuomo’s role in its eventual inception. Eaton’s research identified numerous instances over decades dating back to the 1960s showing that there was private and educational sector demand and support for establishment of an undergraduate engineering program at New Paltz.

The region had the industrial base and SUNY New Paltz had excellent physics, math, and computer science departments. Eaton provided various details citing original studies and discussions including:

  • In 1980 and 1981 there were meetings about establishing cooperative programs with the CUNY and SUNY Stony Brook, two institutions with degree programs in electrical engineering.
  • In 1982, the SUNY trustees adopted a report that said “no college, public or private, within a 70-mile radius…has an engineering pro- gram” even though approximately 11.5% of the state’s engineers were employed in the mid-Hudson region.
  • A 1982 State Education Department (SED) study predicted a shortage of graduates in electrical engineering. Its findings indicated that only 70,000 new graduates would be available through 1985 but “the electronics industry itself could hire ‘nearly 200,000’, not taking into account public utilities or defense industries.”

There was very little support from the association representing accredited engineering programs in the state, which was “opposed to the establishment of any additional engineering programs.” Additionally, the private colleges from across the state — potential competitors — all expressed opposition.

Even the State Department of Education (SED) responded by encouraging the SUNY chancellor to withdraw the proposal to create a four- year engineering program at SUNY New Paltz and then subsequently rejected the New Paltz proposal, which was reported in The New York Times in November 1983. The negative response prompted many area businesses (e.g., IBM, Key Bank, Central Hudson) and the Mid-Hudson region’s legislative leaders to actively lobby in support of the proposal to add engineering at New Paltz.

Governor Mario Cuomo, an outspoken supporter of adding engineering at New Paltz, had been unsuccessful at getting the SED to recon- sider. In response, the governor inserted an allocation of $400,000 for start-up costs for “the unauthorized New Paltz engineering program” in his January 1984 executive budget. The measure passed the state legislature in March 1984.

Though a great deal of debate followed, the SED’s Board of Regents narrowly passed the plan for engineering at New Paltz (eight yes votes, six nos and one abstention) in May 1984.

There were 374 undergraduates majoring in engineering at New Paltz in the spring 2019 semester, nearly double the 194 just six years ago in the fall of 2013. The New Paltz community owes a great deal of gratitude to early supporters of the engineering school, and especially to governor Mario Cuomo, without whom SUNY New Paltz’s trajectory, where engineering has now become one of the college’s top programs, would have been entirely different.

Like his father, Andrew Cuomo has been a strong supporter of SUNY New Paltz’s engineering program. In September 2014, governor

Andrew Cuomo announced a $10-million award to build the Engineering Innovation Hub at SUNY New Paltz as part of his NYSUNY 2020 Challenge Grant Program.

In March 2017 state and university officials celebrated the opening of the $48-million Science Hall on the northeastern corner of the campus. That building demonstrated SUNY New Patz’s commitment to expanding its science and technology programs.

Construction of the new 20,000-square-foot Engineering Innovation Hub, scheduled for completion this September, is projected to generate $75 million in new economic impact, create more than 195 full-time jobs, and graduate 300 engineers over a ten-year period expect- ed to work in the mid-Hudson region.

The software engineering firm SAMsix was founded in 2000 by Steve McMaster. With a handful of satellite locations across the U.S., McMaster was eager to expand and consolidate his business. He found the ideal community for it in downtown New Paltz in 2014. He gave three reasons for the selection: the presence of SUNY New Paltz, the high quality of life and proximity to outdoor recreation, and easy access to New York City.

McMaster has had some encouraging early conversations with math and engineering faculty from SUNY New Paltz about campus collaborations. His New Paltz staff grew from three on New Paltz’s North Front Street in 2014 to over 30 full- and part-time individuals. Since 2014, revenues grew by approximately 30% annually.

Arcos, the name on the building that Steve McMaster owns at 15 Plattekill Avenue, acquired SAMsix in August 2016. Arcos is in turn owned by Riverside Acceleration Capital (RAC), a global software equity investment firm that is part of The Riverside Company, a seven-billion-dollar investment organization. RAC sometimes invests for a high rate of return and not an equity position.

SAMsix provided internships for SUNY New Paltz, and an approximate third of its staff are SUNY New Paltz alumni. Remarkably, there was never a formal relationship between SUNY New Paltz and SAMsix.

SAMsix grew at an accelerated pace, of up to two and half new staff per month, with salaries ranging from $60,000 to $120,000 and full health insurance coverage. But in 2016 the company started running out of office space.

Arcos, which also has offices in Columbus, Ohio, is in turn growing rapidly, but professional office space is very limited in New Paltz and offices that SAMsix created are at capacity.

SAMsix created technology that provides rapid and automated resource response to emergency events, including damage assessment tools used to quickly assess the scale of damage to electric, gas and water distribution infrastructure as well as transport hubs, roads and buildings. 

The company’s systems were purchased by major utility companies throughout North America, as well as the departments of Transport and Health in major US cities.

SAMsix technology has expedited the restoration of electricity to millions of people affected by hurricanes and storms.

Given the arduous history of the struggle to make it happen, said New Paltz mayor Rogers, it is astonishing that today there is a thriving engineering school with three accredited engineering programs at SUNY New Paltz. SAMsix would have never chosen to relocate and grow its business here without SUNY New Paltz’s engineering school. New Paltz is clearly destined to become the Mid-Hudson region’s engineering hub. A DRI award to assist with Arcos expansion would further support New Paltz’s journey.

Tim Rogers is the village of New Paltz mayor.

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