Andrew J. Rudnick's vital signs these days are 15, 1 and 3.
This month marks his 15th anniversary as a community development leader in Buffalo. He has 1 big goal left and he can sum it up in 3 words: "measurable economic revitalization."
The head of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership remains an enigma. The Partnership is an umbrella organization of business leaders trying to drive the region's economic rebirth. Its affiliates include the $27 million Buffalo Niagara Enterprise marketing campaign.
Local CEOs running the Partnership's board say they need Rudnick's extensive smarts and skills to accomplish the economic turnaround.
But after 15 years, as happens with most public and private sector leaders, the list of critics grows. Rudnick fared poorly on a widespread community leadership survey conducted by The Buffalo News this summer.
Critics claim he has become a sentry of the status quo, slipping so far in public opinion that his continued presence compromises the Partnership's effectiveness.
"Every leader has a shelf life. Look at the changes in the county executive's office and at the Erie County Industrial Development Agency. Those changes have been positive for the community," said Paul F. Ciminelli, a local developer and Partnership board member.
"Every once in a while, there has to be a reality check. Whether that's a vote of confidence from the business community or whatever," he said.
Mark E. Hamister, the newly elected Partnership chairman, gives Rudnick that vote of confidence. Hamister said the CEOs on the board are responsible for getting things done, such as pushing for local tax cuts and regulatory changes, and helping attract redevelopment projects to Buffalo and Niagara Falls.
Rudnick's job is simply to study the issues, analyze the data, make recommendations and support the board. He has played that support role exceptionally well, Hamister said.
"He has a wealth of knowledge and talent. I don't think there is a more important contributor to the future of this community," said Hamister, who owns the Buffalo Destroyers arena football team and National Health Care Affiliates.
County Executive Joel A. Giambra also expresses confidence in Rudnick, saying the work the Partnership did for his administration studying the cost of government services through the "Who Does What Commission" was very good.
Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello
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Rudnick: No one doubts his intelligence
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is not so sure. He said the 15-year mark is a legitimate occasion for community dialogue about Rudnick's tenure.
"I think in many circles, there are some serious issues with his style and substantive questions about his accomplishments," Masiello said. "All of us need to be critiqued at times in an open and honest forum."
Even Rudnick's critics admit he is one of Western New York's smartest citizens. He is Harvard educated and holds multiple degrees. Some people think his style, which includes his trademark bow tie and bushy mustache, has become a detriment.
"He's got a great deal of intelligence, and I do enjoy him one-on-one, but he's very difficult to deal with. When he walks into the room, he wants to take it over. It's his way or the highway," said Colleen C. DiPirro, executive director of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce. "I think he's counterproductive to the region moving forward. Whether it's real or imagined, he has a reputation of being an elitist."
Rudnick acknowledges his popularity has waned, but said private sector leaders will not win many popularity contests. Pushing change sometimes involves ruffling feathers, he said.
Rudnick lost some friends in 1995 when the Partnership came out against a project labor agreement for the $185 million expansion of Buffalo Niagara International Airport. The project labor agreement, a contract specifying a heavy percentage of union labor in exchange for a pledge of no work disruption, was ultimately used.
The Partnership was heavily involved in the airport expansion and luring low-cost carriers here, which have greatly reduced costs for business travelers.
The Partnership also helped put regionalism of government services on the public agenda in the mid-1990's, an agenda which helped Giambra, then city comptroller, oust Dennis Gorski as county executive.
"I think private sector leaders understand that you don't have to be popular to be effective, much less successful," Rudnick said.
"At the very least there is a tolerance. And the more I think people get involved in issues, the more they understand there needs to be a durability, there needs to be a continuity, there needs to be a continuing presence as opposed to a fleeting presence," he said.
He has certainly been that continuing presence, the institutional knowledge amid the coming and going of many public and private sector leaders.
Came to town in 1986
When Rudnick arrived in Buffalo to head the former Greater Buffalo Development Foundation, local federal offices marched to the policy of President Ronald Reagan, Gov. Mario Cuomo led Albany, Ed Rutkowski was Erie County executive and Jimmy Griffin roamed Buffalo City Hall.
Rudnick came in 1986 with a wave a "new blood" leaders that included Eric Swider at the old Buffalo Chamber of Commerce, Richard Reinhard at Buffalo Place and Alfred Savage at the NFTA. The others are long gone.
Rudnick has thrived through his ability to quickly analyze problems and come up with pragmatic solutions. He quickly became the go-to guy after arriving here from Houston.
He helped lead a panel to recommend long-term funding solutions for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. When the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra was so deep in the muck with financial and union contract problems that its future was jeopardized, Rudnick took over as interim director and helped put the organization back on stable ground.
He led the merger of the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation and the former Buffalo Chamber of Commerce in 1993, becoming the inaugural president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.
The merger created a more organized and sustained private sector structure in Buffalo, which will likely outlive Rudnick as his legacy.
Still on top of his game?
The big question for the community to ask with any leader this far into his or her term is: 'Has the person evolved with the times?' said Susan Warren Russ, executive director of Leadership Buffalo, a civic leadership and training organization.
"Times are changing so much, and the economy is changing so much. I suppose there could be people who could really evolve with the times and with the community. It's hard for people, once they get entrenched in a certain frame of reference, to keep changing," said Russ.
When asked how much passion he has left for the job, Rudnick said he evolves with the periodic change in volunteer CEOs leading the Partnership.
"That's a question I ask myself periodically . . . When does your artistic creativity and motivation diminish?" Rudnick said.
"I would say it ebbs and flows. Several things have kept it vital. The first thing is the passion of a lot of the volunteers and CEOs that work around this organization. I have been blessed by board chairs at the Partnership and (M&T Bank Chairman) Bob Wilmers at the GBDF before that, who are not at all similar, but are passionate . . . and they've stimulated me at some times when I have not had the zeal."
Some people think Rudnick has become too entrenched in a network of "insiders." Erwin Safir, a Manhattan investor who spent $43 million buying Key Center in downtown Buffalo last year, said Rudnick made him feel like an outsider. Zafir tried to meet Rudnick to talk about the Partnership's office space needs.
Rudnick declined the meeting. The Partnership had already agreed to relocate from Main Place Tower to a building being constructed at 655 Main St.
Zafir offered to make a more competitive bid than the prior owner of Key Center, but could not get a meeting with Rudnick. He described their one telephone conversation as "cold."
"He gave me the sense that 'You are a new guy, why are you making trouble already? Go sit in the corner and be quiet,' " Zafir said.
"Everything in Buffalo seems to be connected to everything else. And if you're an outsider, it's tough breaking in . . . That's the feeling I get. You're either an insider or you're not. I'm wondering how long it takes."
"We had hoped to do great things in Buffalo, but it's a tough place to do business, that's for sure," Zafir said. "New York City is supposed to be tough, but believe me, it's a piece of cake compared to what you've got up there."
Hamister said he accepts the responsibility to get new leaders involved with the Partnership. He said he has reached out to the New Millennium Group, an organization of young leaders, to discuss establishing closer ties.
Is he a scapegoat?
Peter F. Hunt, a local real estate magnate and member of the Partnership's executive committee, said Rudnick tends to be unfairly scapegoated for all the local business community's perceived ills.
"The easy answer is 'Let's get rid of Rudnick,' but that's not the answer," Hunt said. "He tends to be a lightening rod for lots of issues. People who don't know Andrew well will use him as a scapegoat because it's convenient. The solution isn't necessarily to replace this guy or that guy. We have to look at our whole leadership spectrum."
Hunt said the next two years will be crucial for the entire community as the Partnership attempts to implement the Buffalo Niagara Now initiative.
Buffalo Niagara Now is a list of priorities developed from a study of the region conducted by a corporate site selector. The strategy includes cutting local property taxes, getting more low-cost hydropower from the New York Power Authority, developing tourist attractions in Niagara Falls and other goals.
The Partnership is charged with implementing Buffalo Niagara Now, which is supposed to improve the "product" being marketed by the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise.
"Should we make progress on those issues, I think Andrew's shelf life goes on indefinitely," Hunt said.
But the community has been working on most of the goals, in one way or another, for years. And progress has been slow to come. Rochester and Syracuse have faced similar economic problems, and had similar trouble finding solutions.
Rudnick admits that trying to drive the kind of urban revitalization being enjoyed in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and other Rust Belt cities has been frustrating.
"You try and remember the things that have happened that have made a difference . . . You look at the things that have gone right, the airport and the airlines, Roswell Park, a relatively small and relatively poor community keeping a major league sports franchise like the Bills. There are some things that keep you going. There is also, I think, a learning curve about what you can achieve in a relatively short period of time or what structurally has to change in order for major achievement to take place."
"It's sort of, 'If I knew then what I know now, would I have been here?' One of the things that I never realized was how difficult it is to make public sector change in the state of New York."