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Region's council starts work After initial closed meeting, officials pledge openness in formulating development plan

The state's new economic development council held a closed-door meeting Wednesday to start work on a regional plan for the Western New York economy -- a process that officials insisted will be open to the community in the future.

Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy said the private meeting was held Wednesday morning at the University at Buffalo to allow the council's 30 members an introduction to the new regional council and its procedures out of the public spotlight.

But he pledged that the public will have ample opportunity to participate in the process in the coming months.

"In terms of getting it off the ground, we felt it was of benefit to hold a closed meeting," Duffy said following the session, adding that it was not considered subject to the Open Meetings Law.

"We're going to be opening up meetings to the public in the future," he said. "They'll have ample opportunity in the future."

The development council held its first meeting a little more than a week after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo appointed its 30 members, ranging from local business executives to elected officials from across Western New York.

The local council -- which covers Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara counties -- is one of 10 that the governor established last week in an attempt to coordinate the state's economic development efforts while giving regional officials a greater say on the projects that should be considered a priority.

A statewide conference is expected to be held next month to "energize" the process, and each of the 10 regional councils is scheduled to submit its plans by mid-November. The state then is expected to make funding announcements in December. Projects recommended by a regional council are not guaranteed to receive funding.

In all, the councils will compete for the $1 billion that the state has pledged for economic development in the current state budget.

The councils will vie directly for about $200 million in direct funding, with the top four plans each receiving $40 million of that $200 million. The next six proposals will split the remaining $40 million. No region will be shut out of that funding.

The councils can also apply for another $800 million in funding from state agencies for everything from road construction to energy-efficiency grants.

Duffy said the state is encouraging the regions to cooperate. "Competition is good," Duffy said. "Our job is to make sure competition isn't destructive."

Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said the council will have to keep a narrow focus on key projects from across the region to have the greatest impact.

"I'm hoping the process won't dilute the financial needs of major projects within regions," Brown said.

"All of us know that this is going to be a competition of sorts between regions," Brown said. "This is going to cause us to be very strategic in our focus."

Satish K. Tripathi, UB president and the council's co-chairman, said the group's work could have an important impact on the region's economy in the long run.

"I feel it's like a down payment," Tripathi said. "It's a good idea to think more regionally and have a public process."

Thomas A. Kucharski, president of the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise business development and marketing organization and a council member, described the opening session as positive. He said Western New York already has done much of the work to pinpoint important industries and projects, from the Buffalo waterfront and medical campus, to targeted industries ranging from tourism to agribusiness and advanced manufacturing.