Cuomo planting the seeds of change in Buffalo - The Buffalo News
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Cuomo planting the seeds of change in Buffalo

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has a lot in common with the mythical Johnny Appleseed.

The governor stopped in Buffalo on Wednesday to plant eight more seeds in his quest to rebuild the Buffalo Niagara economy, announcing the first eight companies picked to be part of the state’s Start-Up NY tax-free zones for new businesses.

That came on the heels of the announcement earlier this week that 2,600 entrepreneurs had survived the first cut in the state’s $5 million business plan competition, aimed at luring 11 fledgling companies to the region in a bid to make the region a more innovative place and more appealing to people with a promising idea for a new venture.

And it came as the state gave a powerful boost to help revive the sagging Key Center, with the announcement that IBM Corp. will bring 500 jobs to an office building that largely would have been vacant a year from now, when Delaware North Cos. moves to its new, taxpayer-subsidized headquarters a few blocks away.

It’s all part of the evolution of the governor’s Buffalo Billion economic development plan, which is picking up steam as its key elements move from the idea stage to the early stages of reality.

From big-ticket projects, like the $225 million RiverBend clean energy and technology hub, which is expected to see a groundbreaking in the coming weeks, to the small pieces, like the $5 million 43North business plan competition slated to choose its winners in late October, the Buffalo Billion initiatives are gaining a momentum all their own.

“All of the planets are lining up really well,” said Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown. “We’re seeing those seeds grow tremendously and quickly.”

That’s important, because the Buffalo Billion is based on a broad-based plan that doesn’t focus on just one company or a single key industry. It’s backing initiatives in a handful of key sectors, from advanced manufacturing and information technology, to clean energy and medical genomics.

“This is a different Buffalo,” Cuomo said.

“We’re finding new business lines,” he said. “This is not going to be, Are we going to make Buffalo what it was? This is about, Are we going to make Buffalo better than it ever was before?”

The common thread among the ventures is a focus on up-and-coming parts of the economy that are expected to grow rapidly.

“These are attempts to put a stake in the ground on next-generation jobs and reposition Western New York,” said Howard Zemsky, the co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council.

And the governor is casting his net fairly wide. Some of the seeds are bound to take root and grow. But others may wither. That’s why you want to plant a lot of seeds, and different types of seeds, too.

“For a community to grow in a healthy way, you want economic diversity,” Brown said. “You don’t want to put all of your seeds in one basket.”

Half of the first wave of Start-Up NY companies are in biotechnology. The other half are in information technology. Together, they are promising to bring 204 jobs to the Buffalo Niagara region.

The initiatives also are bringing in seeds from far beyond Western New York. One of the companies coming to Buffalo through the Start-Up NY program is from Utah. Another is from Florida, and a third, Aesku NY, is coming from Germany with promises to create 50 jobs here. The Start-Up NY program exempts eligible companies with ties to the state’s universities from state taxes over a 10-year period, while employees don’t have to pay state income taxes on their pay.

“Without Start-Up NY, we might not be here,” said Vijay Kumar, an associate research professor in UB’s department of microbiology and dermatology who also serves as an Aesku vice president. “Start-Up NY sealed the deal for us.”

More than 90 percent of the entrepreneurs who submitted applications to the 43North business plan competition came from outside Western New York. Results like that are helping to change the image of Buffalo Niagara as a depressed, Rust Belt region beset with high taxes and a generally nasty business climate.

“Between the 43North program and Start-Up NY, people are looking at the region,” said Marnie LaVigne, the University at Buffalo’s associate vice president for economic development

“It really is about showing people that this is a different place when it comes to doing business,” said Andrew Pulkrabek, 43North’s executive director.

If enough of the seeds take hold, the Start-Up NY program and the state’s other initiatives could be a game changer for the region, said Satish Tripathi, the UB president who is the other co-chairman of the regional development council.

“It has all kinds of implications. It really has an impact that’s not just directly creating jobs, but on the quality of life,” he said. “Our graduates can actually can remain here. The city’s economy improves so you can attract other people as well.”

After a half century of decline, that would be a welcome change.


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