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Spitzer fills job to boost economy

Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer is turning to a senior government official from Pennsylvania as his economic development czar to focus solely on restoring the moribund upstate New York economy.

Daniel Gundersen, who has run day-to-day operations at Pennsylvania's economic development office since 2003 after similar stints at agencies in Maryland and Philadelphia, will become co-chairman of the state's Empire State Development Corp. and head of its new upstate office in Buffalo.

"He's a doer. There are lots of people who can talk and get the lingo. He actually gets the job done," said Spitzer, who tapped Gundersen after a national search that attracted a large field of economic experts for the job.

Spitzer said Gundersen's ambitious duties have a single mission: "pure dedication to the upstate economy."

Spitzer said he considered a number of people from Western New York and elsewhere upstate for the $190,000-a-year post. In Gundersen, though, Spitzer said, he found someone without geographic allegiances to any one region or any personal business ties -- an issue some private-sector business executives had -- that could have been called into conflict.

"He can take a fresh look," Spitzer said in an interview.

The governor, a Democrat, also is hiring Kenneth A. Schoetz, who headed Spitzer's Buffalo office while Spitzer was state attorney general, to be the agency's chief operating officer.

Schoetz, who had been Erie County attorney in the administration of then-County Executive Dennis T. Gorski, will be based in Buffalo, a move intended to send both a practical and symbolic message to upstate.

Battling a population exodus of young workers, businesses frustrated by high taxes and competition from a global economy taking upstate jobs to North Carolina, Florida and other states, Gundersen will head an office that Spitzer said will have authority, access, a sizable staff and the power to push through his economic agenda for the region.

The governor said helping restore the upstate economy will be "the single most important test or failure" of his administration.

Though Gundersen, 46, has spent the past couple of decades competing against New York State in luring companies to relocate to Pennsylvania and Maryland, he is not unfamiliar with the problems facing the upstate area. His wife of 21 years, Tamera, who works for General Electric Commercial Finance, grew up in the Finger Lakes region, where the couple and their teenage daughter return several times a year. In addition, Gundersen's father-in-law once lived in the Buffalo area while employed by Occidental Chemicals & Plastics Corp.

"I have a deep appreciation for the problems. But I also have optimism that we can tackle these issues," Gundersen said.

Beyond Spitzer's plans to help the upstate region by cutting property taxes and business costs -- like workers' compensation -- and pumping money into aging infrastructures, Gundersen said he envisions devising an economic recovery plan "that recognizes each region has its own unique set of issues and to develop blueprints for solutions."

He said his plan will avoid a "one size fits all" strategy by tapping into methods he has used in Pennsylvania that, he said, last year made the state North America's top cross-border investment in attracting new manufacturing.

In a Northeast region where manufacturing is dying off, Gundersen said such success "almost defies common sense" for a state like Pennsylvania, where manufacturing once shaped the economy. "But it only works if you are very focused on what you are going after," he said.

Spitzer said he sees opportunities to make Buffalo a center for the financial services sector. "It need not just be New York City that benefits from the boom in that area," said Spitzer, who added he has already discussed such ideas with financial executives.

Gundersen recalled how his Maryland economic development agency in 2002 lured an office from Manhattan-based Morgan Stanley to Baltimore, eventually bringing several hundred high-paying jobs. He said he and Spitzer already have discussed a plan to show how such companies "can look to upstate" when expanding operations outside of Manhattan.

As chief operating officer of Pennsylvania's $665 million economic development agency, Gundersen oversaw the state's overseas business development efforts and its 28 international offices. Before holding a similar job in Maryland, he was an economic adviser to then-Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell, now the governor of Pennsylvania, who today boasts of his state's job growth.

In Philadelphia, Gundersen organized one of the nation's first federal urban Empowerment Zones that targeted blighted neighborhoods for renewal. He has a master's degree in governmental administration from the University of Pennsylvania, with a concentration in public management and finance at the Wharton School.

The new post is unusual for a government agency. While some corporations have had co-chairmen, many business executives have wondered how Spitzer will structure his new dual leadership operation for the economic development agency -- and whether the upstate czar will take a back seat in an agency traditionally based in Manhattan. Pat Foye, Spitzer's friend of 20 years, is the downstate co-chairman.

"I have no concern about our ability to work as a team, along with the governor, to ensure there is balance," said Gundersen, who will work for his third Democratic governor.

"It's easy at one level: They both work for me," Spitzer said of the co-chairmen. He said corporations that have had dual leadership problems did so because there was really no one in charge above them. "Here, there is a place where the buck stops," Spitzer said of himself. "If there is ever a disagreement and need for resolution, I'm going to do it."

The governor said he structured the office this way to make sure his vow to improve the upstate economy is realized. "This is a recognition we are dealing with at least two economic environments" in the state, he said. "I want someone solely focused on upstate, Western New York. He will be in Buffalo, driving those deals, making sure the waterfront and Peace Bridge are paid attention to -- and doesn't simultaneously have to deal with the Freedom Tower and the Second Avenue subway," he said of two major Manhattan projects.

The precise size of the Buffalo office remains to be determined, but Spitzer administration officials said some agency jobs probably will shift from Manhattan to Western New York. "This is going to be real," Spitzer said.

In recent weeks, upstate business executives have taken a wait-and-see attitude on Spitzer's upstate office. Some privately noted they have heard a long line of previous politicians talk boldly of restoring upstate.

Spitzer said he believes his many economic development plans aimed at upstate, much of which will need the backing of state lawmakers, will not bring prosperity overnight. But if his plans are approved, he said, "People pretty soon will begin to feel differently about the direction the economy is moving in."

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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