Destiny USA fighting behind the scenes to keep I-81 in current path

Future of 81

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — Some leaders claim the Future of 81 is make or break for Destiny USA, the sixth largest shopping center in the United States. The interstate passes right by the mall.

While that impact can be debated, Destiny USA’s owners are signaling a pending threat.

While the owners, Pyramid Management Group, have been quiet on the public front, NewsChannel 9 has learned they’re working behind the scenes.

Public records, filed with Congress, show Destiny USA has hired a high-profile transportation lobbyist to argue the mall’s position before Congress and the Federal Highway Administration.

The records list the specific lobbying issue as “issues related to transportation in Onondaga County, New York,” but a high-ranking government source tells NewsChannel 9 the lobbyist’s focus is I-81.

The lobbyist hired, according to the records, is Martin Whitmer.

According to the firm’s website, Whitmer served on President Donald Trump’s Transition Team for transportation policy from September 2016 through November 2016. Before that, Whitmer was deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Transportation appointed by President George W. Bush.

While Destiny USA goes above the NYSDOT to the Federal Highway Administration, the federal government’s only role is make sure the NYSDOT followed a proper design process, not to question the decision itself.

Pyramid Management Group has always had a clear position in the debate to replace an aging section of the interstate: Keep high-speed traffic moving north to south, right by the mall, not slowing it down with a community grid interruption.

Rerouting the interstate to I-481, as proposed by the State Department of Transportation, would route traffic away from the mall.

The state’s plan calls for a 1.2 mile stretch of highway to be replaced by Business Loop 81, which is a combination of high-speed road and a designation of city streets at slower speeds with traffic lights.

While the hire is clear Pyramid is protecting its interests behind the scenes, the company leaders have not taken part in any Save 81 rally or news conference this year.

The company’s most recent statement was sent to NewsChannel 9 in April, after the State DOT endorsed the community grid of city streets to replace the elevated highway.

“Destiny USA is an international travel and tourism destination with visitors from well beyond the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County limits and all over the world. Since 1987, we have transformed the Syracuse lakefront area and Destiny USA project into one of New York State’s top tourist attractions, employing over 5,500 and serving as an important economic catalyst for all of Central New York. At the heart of it all has always been—and always will be—high-speed access to and visibility from I-81. It’s what allows us to attract hundreds of businesses and tens of millions of visitors to Destiny USA, the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County from outside the region every year.

We are concerned about any solution that impacts Destiny USA’s ability to remain a regional draw. We have shared this concern with the City of Syracuse, Onondaga County and New York State over many years. Like many businesses, residents, and community leaders who recognize the need for maintaining high-speed access through the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County, we are anxious to review the latest Draft Environmental Impact Statement released by the New York State Department of Transportation and participate in the determination and ultimate outcome of this transformational decision.”

— Stephen Congel, CEO, Pyramid Management Group

A spokesperson for Pyramid Management Group declined NewsChannel 9’s request for comment Tuesday.

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