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Group wants state to focus on upstate economy

A consortium of upstate business groups has mounted a new effort to get the state to focus on the continuing decline of the upstate economy, saying that special laws carved out just for the benefit of upstate need to be on the books.

"There is a difference between upstate and New York City and Long Island," said Robert Brady, chairman of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and one of the organizers of Unshackle Upstate, a new group that is enlisting upstate businesses and residents to pressure state officials to adopt geographically-targeted reforms to help the region's sagging economy.

The list of reforms has been kicking around for years: worker's compensation relief, giving regions more say over how economic development money is spent, and things like changes in the tort laws that drive up the cost of doing business.

But the group, trying to tap into a more collective upstate voice, is putting a new emphasis on making changes to state law -- whether in Medicaid or binding arbitration or union work rules on construction projects -- that would only apply upstate. They argue that special interests at the Capitol regularly block such reforms statewide, so a targeted upstate approach should now be tried.

By pooling the efforts of business organizations across upstate, organizers said the new effort will be able to push for reforms out of Albany. "We're still a force," Brian Hickey, executive vice president of M&T Bank, said of the upstate area that, if taken alone, would be the nation's 13th largest state. "It is a meaningful contributor to the United States' economy."

But Hickey, who runs the bank's upstate operations, said the region's economy continues to worsen, resulting in a population drain. He said the group's efforts won't be accomplished in this legislative session. "It's going to take us some time to roll back some of the things that have put (upstate) in this position," he said.

The group's chief mission -- to have upstate treated as a separate entity when it comes to a series of reforms to help the region's economy -- would require a cultural change in the thinking at the state Capitol.
"We don't want to secede from New York," said Rochester-area Sen. James Alesi. But he said the region needs specific help that the more economically healthy downstate area does not.

"Upstate New York can't wait," he said.

Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, said the new effort is meant "to demonstrate as clearly as possible that upstate is different and needs different approaches."

He cited New York City landlords who, because of higher rents they can get, can better absorb certain state-mandated building requirements that substantially add onto a project's costs.

Unlike past efforts to organize upstate groups into a single force, backers of the new effort said they are pushing to make their group -- unshackleupstate.com -- into a more grass roots organization with residents and business owners alike as members.

"We need state lawmakers to help us find a solution, and need upstate residents to join with us to stand up for their jobs, children and communities," said Brady, who is also chairman of Moog Inc.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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