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Robinson: New money ensures Buffalo Billion isn't one-and-done

In some ways, economic development is a lot like cooking. You need a good recipe and you need the money to buy the right ingredients.

So when the State Legislature this week approved funding for projects valued at $525 million for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion II, it was a big deal because it ensured that the state will have plenty of money to buy the ingredients for his recipe to revive the long-downtrodden Buffalo Niagara economy.

Equally important, the recipe actually is a good one, developed by the local regional economic development council six years ago after months of research and study into identifying what the Buffalo Niagara region does well and where it has a competitive edge over other places.

"We're doubling down on our core strategies, which I would describe as downtown revitalization, innovation, place-based investments, transit-oriented development, East Side development, medical campus development," said Howard Zemsky, the president of Empire State Development.

Doubling down is an apt description, too, because the Buffalo Billion II is aimed at building on a foundation laid by the original Buffalo Billion more than five years ago.

That plan was a watershed commitment by the state to the Buffalo Niagara region, not just because of the flood of economic development resources it bestowed on the region, but also because of the "shock and awe" effect that the program had on cynical Western New Yorkers who had become jaded after so many years of broken promises and failed pie-in-the-sky initiatives.

The first Buffalo Billion used the development plan to make big bets on a handful of signature projects, from the SolarCity solar panel factory in South Buffalo to the Athenex and Albany Molecular Research drug development projects and IBM Corp.'s big data center in downtown Buffalo.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo steps into a massive "clean room" under construction in the Athenex facility at Conventus in February 2016. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

Part II doesn't have those types of eye-catching projects – at least not yet. But it does have something equally important: It continues the flow of money and investment into the region, ensuring that the Buffalo Billion isn't just a one-and-done initiative.

"Technically, you can't get two once-in-a-lifetime opportunities," Zemsky said. "But as a practical matter, we have been given once-in-a-lifetime opportunities."

It's still too early to take a full measure of the original Buffalo Billion. To be sure, it has accomplished Cuomo's goal of turning the region's collective psyche from cynical and negative to upbeat.

You also can say that the Buffalo Billion has yet to accomplish its broader mission of turning the Buffalo Niagara economy into a vibrant hub of business activity, instead of an economic laggard. There's been progress – job growth last year strengthened to 1 percent, compared to 0.7 percent in 2014 – but the pace of hiring still lags behind the rest of the country.

But some of the big Buffalo Billion I projects are just a shadow of what they might become. If the SolarCity factory succeeds in creating its promised 2,900 jobs at both the rooftop solar installer and its suppliers, that project alone would add about a half of a percentage point to the region's job growth rate. And that would move the pace of hiring tantalizingly close to the national average – a prospect that only the biggest Buffalo Niagara booster would have dared consider a decade ago.

The tide started to turn when Cuomo formed the regional councils.  Zemsky helped craft what he describes as a "sensible strategic plan" that looked at the region's strengths, such as tourism and advanced manufacturing, and tried to tap into competitive advantages that other regions 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 too-often scattershot approach to economic development.

Until then, Zemsky said, "our plan was, there was no plan. Consequently, economic development happened in a very arbitrary and random and haphazard way. It's anything but that now. It's very coherent and comprehensive, and I think it's been very impactful."

Equally important, the Cuomo administration managed to sell it to the region's power brokers and keep them committed to it, while shifting their focus squarely away from the silver bullet projects that had led to so much disappointment in the years before.

"You cannot overstate the impact of good planning," Zemsky said. "That, more than anything, has changed the paradigm and has changed the performance of economic development."

So the Buffalo Billion II focuses on smart growth, backing a long-shot project like the extension of the Metro Rail to Amherst and more realistic, yet challenging, initiatives, like redeveloping the DL&W Terminal at the other end of the rail line.

"I love the fact that we're expressing some real ambition around the connectivity of Buffalo and Amherst," Zemsky said. "I like it when we're ambitious like that. Those are ways we can help repair the impacts of sprawl that we've experienced over many decades."

It boosts tourism by setting aside nearly $25 million to buy up underused or undeveloped property near the Niagara Falls State Park from speculators. It encourages entrepreneurship by allocating $40 million to create a new innovation hub and spawn a new fund to invest in innovative businesses. It puts a new focus on neighborhood development, especially on the East Side, which missed out on the biggest prizes in the Buffalo Billion I.

"A focus on East Side revitalization is maybe our highest priority," Zemsky said. "We've got a number of potential projects and corridors that we're really going to focus on."

It's all part of the plan.

"I think we have clear vision that I think has had a profound impact," Zemsky said.

"There are no silver bullets. There is no single project that, in and of itself, should ever be depended on to transform a city or region the size of Buffalo," he said. "This holistic vision will continue to be a game changer, I think, for the community. That's how economic development is properly done."

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