Gov. Eliot Spitzer and his new upstate economic development czar, Daniel Gundersen, said all the right things last week about how to revive the region's sagging business climate. It remains to be seen if they'll be able to actually do the right things.
For now, all Ken Adams wants is to finally see a sign that the state is making progress to rein in its uncompetitive business costs.
"What business leaders are waiting to see is a recognition of those high-cost issues and the beginning of a campaign to bring down those costs," said Adams, the president of the Business Council of New York State, after listening to Spitzer introduce Gundersen during a stop in, Buffalo.
"The issue now is: starting to make progress this year on these cost issues so that this wall of anti-competitiveness around New York begins to crumble," he said.
That's the biggest hurdle that Gundersen faces as he wraps up his work as a top development official for Pennsylvania and gears up to assume his new job in a week or so as the upstate chairman of the Empire State Development Corp.
There's only so much Gundersen or any government agency can do so long as New York fails to make meaningful progress on the long-time list of issues that make the state an expensive place for businesses, from worker's compensation and energy, to taxes, liability and health insurance costs.
Gundersen, to his credit, talked about the right things as he laid out an eight-point plan to guide upstate development efforts.
At the top of the list was supporting the state's existing businesses so they expand in New York. He also talked about focusing on businesses in growing industries that value the skills and resources available here, capitalizing on upstate's colleges and universities and encouraging private sector investments.
"He knows how to get deals done. He knows how to get jobs created," Spitzer said, citing Gundersen's experience in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
We've heard a lot of that before, but some local business officials still came away encouraged, especially by the talk about focusing on growing industries. "He understands the need to focus on selected targets, so you do some things well instead of a lot of things poorly," said Mark E. Hamister, the president of the Hamister Group in Amherst.
"Shoot, ready, aim isn't the way to go," said Andrew J. Rudnick, the president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. "Ready, aim, shoot is the way to go. Build on your unique strengths," which in the Buffalo Niagara region include life sciences, logistics and back office operations.
"You've got to be really clear on growth sectors . . . so the taxpayers' money that is invested in incentives are targeted in areas that are poised for growth," Adams said.
Spitzer promised that Gundersen's upstate office will have decision-making power, which would go a long way to ease complaints from upstate businesses that it took too long to get answers from state development officials, if they got the right people on the phone to begin with.
Being able to get quick responses from Empire State Development's 20-person staff at its new Buffalo office will be a welcome change for businesses. "You have to rely on these guys," Rudnick said.
But even Spitzer, who says his proposal to cut property taxes by $6 billion over three years is a key step in the initial efforts to reduce the state's high costs, admits that change will take time.
"Turning a battleship takes more than 24 hours. But we will see tangible results in months," he said. "There will be a difference very, very quickly."
With more people moving away every day, time is not on our side.