Howard Zemsky's fingerprints are all over Buffalo Billion, Part II.
Like Zemsky, the Buffalo developer who serves as president of Empire State Development, the second phase of the Buffalo Billion isn't flashy. It's thoughtful and balanced. It's not aiming for quick hits.
Some of its initiatives, like extending the Metro Rail to Amherst and redeveloping the DL&W Terminal at the other end of the rail line, will take years to happen, if at all.
“Even if it takes years to do that – which it will – these initiatives are worthwhile," Zemsky said. "We don’t not do it because it will take some years.”
Unlike his former rival, SUNY Polytechnic President Alain Kaloyeros, who had a penchant for mega-projects like the SolarCity solar panel factory, the second part of the Buffalo Billion isn't groundbreaking. It's based on the same economic development plan that Zemsky helped prepare six years ago when he was co-chair of the region's economic development council.
But now, Kaloyeros is battling corruption charges, rather than sparring with Zemsky to sit in the driver's seat of the Cuomo administration's economic development train. Zemsky is Cuomo's undisputed point man for economic development.
“Now, ESD has the opportunity to drive that train,” Zemsky said.
When Cuomo formed the regional councils, Zemsky helped craft what he describes as a "robust strategy" that looked at the region's strengths, such as tourism and advanced manufacturing, and tried to double down on those competitive advantages that other region's couldn't easily match.
It also identified weaknesses, such as a lack of entrepreneurship and a shortage of certain types of skilled labor, and came up with a plan to fix those shortcomings. It was a radical development in Western New York's economic development, not only because of what the plan did, but because the Cuomo administration managed to sell it to the region's power brokers and moved their focus squarely away from the silver bullet projects that had led to so much disappointment in the years before.
That plan was the blueprint for the original Buffalo Billion, with a strong dose of Kaloyeros flash thrown in. It's still Zemsky's guidebook for the Buffalo Billion II.
“It continues to be a transformative strategy in Western New York,” Zemsky said.
“All the things that worked so well in Buffalo Billion I are in here,” he said. “It was downtown revitalization. It was waterfront activation. It was transit-oriented development. It was workforce training.”
"You can see a theme here: We’re trying to help as many people as we can to get the skills to take advantage of the growing opportunities that are coming," he said. “At the end of the day, we will only succeed in creating more opportunity, through connecting people with transit, through connecting people by putting the jobs where they are accessible and by not continuing to spread and sprawl them out all over.”
In many ways, the original Buffalo Billion's flashy projects haven't had a huge impact on the local economy yet. The SolarCity solar panel factory generated a spike in construction jobs that came and went, but the solar energy company so far only has created about 50 of the 1,460 jobs it has promised to bring to the region. The IBM data analytics center downtown has about 100 people. The Athenex drug plant in Dunkirk is still in the construction phase. It will be years before all the promised jobs from those projects – and others – are created, if all goes according to plan.
Zemsky is trying to think bigger than a handful of high-profile projects. “We’re creating a place where, at the end of the day, people can get a job, get the skills to get a job, where people can get to the job, and where people want to live, particularly young people,” Zemsky said.
You can see that in the Buffalo Billion II's $10 million proposal to acquire up to 1,000 acres of land on the former Bethlehem Steel site to convert it into an industrial park, with easy access to rail and water lines, as well as highways. It would go a long way toward easing the shortage of shovel-ready sites that businesses look for when they want to expand quickly. And it would do it on a brownfield site, on a bus route in Lackawanna, just south of the Buffalo border.
"It's an important project," said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. "It has so much potential."
But that potential won't pay off quickly. It will take years to acquire the property, clean it up, relocate rail lines and upgrade its roads and other infrastructure. And only then will it become a magnet for developers, just as the old Republic Steel site was for SolarCity and the Lakeside Commerce Center has become for companies like Cobey and Certainteed. None of those businesses would be where they are if it wasn't for the advance work that was done years before to get those sites ready for development.
"You can create economic development with the big companies just as well as with the smaller ones," said Poloncarz, who has been pushing for the redevelopment of the former steel plant property.
"The progress can't be just on one or two projects, it has to be on smaller ones that make a difference for the greater community," Poloncarz said. "One or two years of investment isn't enough. You have to continue it. And then it will self-sustain."