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David Robinson: Buffalo Billion II is safe even if state has to cut

No matter what happens in Washington with potential budget cuts, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is committed to the more than $500 million in initiatives in his Buffalo Billion II economic development program.

"The $500 million is safe," Cuomo said Tuesday during a meeting with reporters and editors at The Buffalo News.

Cuomo's pledge is significant because the new state budget gives the governor unusual power to reduce state spending if cuts in the federal budget create a big gap in the state's spending plan. If it comes to that, Cuomo's pledge is a sign that he plans to look elsewhere for savings, rather than back away from his signature economic development plan for Western New York.

Cuomo said the more than $500 million included in the state budget for the Buffalo Billion II will build on the more than $1 billion that the governor's administration funneled into the Buffalo Niagara region in a bold attempt to jumpstart a largely stagnant economy.

Since then, job growth has picked up. During 2016, hiring ran at its strongest pace in 17 years. The pace of the region's expansion still lags behind the rest of the country, but some economists say then region's stagnant population acts as a damper on economic growth.

"Phase two means that this is going to be institutionalized in a way that no economic development program in the country has been institutionalized," Cuomo said during a stop at the Reverend Dr. Bennett Smith Sr. Family Life Center on Michigan Avenue.

That institutionalization goes beyond the community and neighborhood development focus in the Buffalo Billion II, developed late last year by Cuomo's economic development czar, Buffalo developer Howard Zemsky.

The Buffalo Billion II is about more than its transportation projects, from funding studies to extend the Metro Rail to Amherst and redeveloping the DL&W terminal at the other end of the line downtown. It's not just the plan's program to bolster tourism by purchasing underused and vacant properties near the Niagara Falls State Park from speculators. It covers more than the plan to fund innovative worker training initiatives as a way of preparing the region's workers for 21st century jobs.

Lawmakers approve $500 million in Buffalo Billion II funding

In fact, the Buffalo Billion has evolved to the point where it now can take advantage of other state initiatives that aren't part of the Cuomo administration's signature economic development program.

That includes his more than $160 million program to offer free tuition to State University of New York colleges and universities. Building a new generation of college graduates is an essential part of the state's worker training initiatives, Cuomo said.

"You know the first question a businessman asks me or Howard when we’re trying to get them to come the state? Do you have the educated workforce? Do you have the skilled workforce?" Cuomo said. "The state with the smartest skilled workforce wins. That is the economy of tomorrow."

Then there's the $65 million the Buffalo Billion II will pump into the 43North business plan competition, build a new innovation center to ease the shortage of incubator space for startup companies and create an investment fund for cutting edge firms. It's about building a climate where startups can flourish, and where starting a business is a cool thing to do, especially among millennials.

"When you create a kind of co-location environment like that, they're all helping one another and sharing experiences," Zemsky said. "They're connected to the business school at [the University at Buffalo]. They're connected to the engineering school at UB. They're connected to other schools in the region. That's really an important idea. We really never had identified that as a prominent opportunity."

What will $500 million in Buffalo Billion II buy?

It's part of a strategy aimed at keeping – and attracting – young people to the region. The latest census data indicates that the region's population among people between the ages of 20 and 34 has started to grow again after decades of decline.

"We've changed our image," Zemsky said. "We've created places where young people want to be."

Investments that have turned Canalside into a happening place. Taxpayer-subsidized investments to turn old downtown buildings into new apartments. Ambitious renovation projects like the one that turned the old Lafayette Hotel from a flophouse into a boutique hotel and night spot.

"Cool places matter to young people," Zemsky said. "When you see growth in the young people population, that is a reflection of these strategies."

To be sure, it's just a start. But it's a big step in the right direction.

"You hear people criticize that the bar business is booming," Zemsky said.

"Really? You don't think that brings a lot of energy downtown, this incredible explosion of hospitality, microbreweries, microdistilleries? You don't think that's not an important part of economic development?" he asked.

"Go ask people in Portland. Ask people in Seattle. Ask people in Austin. What are those places? They're magnets for young people. They're places for entrepreneurship. They're great places where people want to live. And they're places that have connected their young entrepreneurs to their universities. That's what Austin is. That's what the Silicon Valley is. It's the University of Texas. It's Stanford University," Zemsky said. "We have a research university here. It's called UB and we have purposely worked to connect UB and their assets to entrepreneurs."

So the Buffalo Billion II doesn't have the eye-popping projects that Phase I did. There's no SolarCity solar panel factory. No IBM data analytics hub. No Athenex drug factory.

But if it works, the Buffalo Billion II will be like fertilizer for the roots that were planted by the first phase. Plus Canalside. Plus the Chippewa strip. Plus all the trendy new apartments downtown.

"In this second stage, we're doing things that are more than flashy," Zemsky said. "They're substantive and they're sustaining for the economy of this region."

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