The newly appointed president of a business-led regional marketing initiative claims he was one of Western New York's "biggest cheerleaders" long before he agreed to head Buffalo Niagara Enterprise.
Thomas A. Kucharski, a Buffalo native who has amassed extensive economic development experience in Pennsylvania and Florida, officially accepted the BNE's offer late Friday and will begin as president and Chief Executive on Feb. 1.
"I've long been a cheerleader for Buffalo, because I know a lot about the region's enormous assets," said Kucharski. "And I even went through the Blizzard of '77! I was playing in a hockey tournament and was stranded at the Depew Ice Rink."
Kucharski, 39, most recently headed the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp., eastern Pennsylvania's first regional development initiative. Established in 1995, the effort is credited with attracting 18,000 jobs and $1 billion in investment.
In his role at Lehigh Valley EDC, Kucharski is credited with helping to "rebrand" a Rust Belt region that includes Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, Pa., into an area that has been recognized nationally for its success in redeveloping brownfields and attracting dozens of employers in high-growth industries.
"Billy Joel's song 'Allentown' said it all. It didn't give a flattering image to the region and his video painted even bleaker images," said Kucharski. "We had to deal with it head-on. We acknowledged that that's who we were, but we also told the world that things had changed."
Prior to joining the Lehigh Valley initiative in its start-up phase, Kucharski served as executive director of the Horizon Council of Southwest Florida, the first regional public/private partnership in Southwest Florida.
Kucharski, a graduate of the University at Buffalo and Maryvale High School, said he believes his hands-on involvement in creating two regional marketing initiatives has equipped him with the tools needed to launch BNE. The five-year, $27 million effort aims to create 50,000 net new jobs and $1 billion in investment.
"It's an ambitious goal, but I'm not about to say that it's unachievable," said Kucharski. "The first couple of years will be key. That's when we'll lay the groundwork and show people that we're serious about what we're doing."
BNE officials began a national search for a new president more than two months ago. About 30 economic development and regional marketing experts expressed some level of interest, including several local individuals. The field was narrowed to three candidates, all of them based in other states.
BNE Chairman Brian E. Keating, regional president of HSBC Bank USA, said a committee conducted an "exhaustive" search.
"We had a great pool to choose from and some very strong candidates," Keating said. "There was a total consensus that Tom is the right person for this job."
Stephen Odland, CEO of Tops Markets Inc., headed the search process. He said BNE members were determined to find an economic development professional with experience in both the public and private sectors, who had experience in redeveloping brownfields and a keen knowledge of growth-oriented industries.
"Tom has all that in spades," said Odland. "As an added benefit, he's a native Buffalonian who is passionate about this region and is eager to get started."
Tops Markets is the largest private sector contributor to BNE, having pledged $1.25 million over a five-year period. About three-quarters of the financial commitments have come from private companies; the remaining money will come from the state, county, city and other public agencies.
Kucharski will fill a post that has been vacant since last summer, following the stormy departures of BNE President Robert B. Mackenzie and Chairman Victor A. Rice. BNE leaders downplayed the dissension as "start-up confusion" that is not uncommon when entities struggle to launch unprecedented initiatives.
Neither Kucharski nor BNE officials would discuss the terms of the employment agreement that was finalized late Friday, including the length of the pact.
BNE is affiliated with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the region's largest business advocacy group. President Andrew J. Rudnick said Kucharski will be given broad powers to steer the initiative.
"The BNE board believes that its president should have all the autonomy that a CEO needs in order to shape this important effort," said Rudnick.
Ever since the regional marketing initiative was announced nearly a year ago, some community leaders had expressed concerns that the Partnership might exert too much influence on BNE's efforts.
"I'm not overly-concerned about that issue," said Kucharski. "I think BNE will establish a strategic plan that will let everyone know who will be doing what. It will also spell out those things that we'll be doing together. I think there will be a good synergy."
BNE will occupy newly renovated office space adjacent to the Partnership on the third floor of Main Place Tower.
Kucharski spent four years as a senior economist with the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C., and also worked for a publishing house in the private sector.
His most recent role in Pennsylvania saw him direct the implementation of a marketing plan that received national attention. Terri Glueck, vice president of strategic marketing for the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, said the Lehigh Valley EDC effectively positioned its region as a "gateway of economic activity." While Glueck said she does not know Kucharski personally, she said his agency has earned respect among economic developers in Pennsylvania.
"It's a very savvy, resourceful organization that certainly knows how to market its message," Glueck said.
Kucharski said Lehigh Valley launched a number of initiatives that he thinks were pivotal in reshaping the region's battered image. One campaign was called "Think Big." Another was called "Where in the World is Lehigh Valley?"
"That was exactly my response when the people from Lehigh Valley came a calling in Florida," Kucharski recalled. "I said to them, 'OK, guys. First you've got to give me a state.' I had no idea where Lehigh Valley was. I think we've made some pretty important strides since 1995."