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State agency head sees gains in improving business climate; Steps taken include property tax cap

Kenneth Adams has spent years working for business advocacy groups, pushing for New York to take steps to make the state a better place to do business.

Now, just months into his new job as head of the Empire State Development agency, Adams says he's seeing significant strides to improve New York's business climate.

From a property tax cap and the lower state spending that helped close a $10 billion budget gap to the creation of 10 regional economic development councils, Adams said the Cuomo administration is making progress toward creating an image that New York can be a good place to do business.

"They send a message that now we can get things done in Albany," Adams said Thursday during a speech for the kick-off of the Accelerate Upstate conference in Buffalo on ways to spur economic development across upstate New York.

"We've got to have government that's much more sensitive to the needs of business and get out of the way," Adams said at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. "We still have to really fight to improve the broader business climate," Adams said. "It's not just projects. It's policies."

Adams touted the new regional economic development councils as an important change in the state's economic development bureaucracy that will make it easier for companies to deal with the state's various agencies and give local officials more of a voice in setting economic priorities. The Western New York council held its first meeting on Wednesday behind closed doors at the University at Buffalo, but officials promised to open up the panel's proceedings to greater public scrutiny and participation in the future.

"The economic development strategies of the past have really failed to solve today's challenges," Adams said.

Adams said the property tax cap, which limits increases to 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower, will help businesses by slowing the rise of their rapidly growing property tax burden. The current state budget sent a signal that New York is able to live within its means. And Adams said the Recharge New York program that expanded and provided a long-term mandate for the old Power for Jobs program to provide businesses with discounted electricity removed an element of uncertainty that had frustrated many participating companies.

Steps like that will help begin to restore the confidence of top business executives in state government, he said. "They have to have a government in Albany they trust, run by people they trust," he said.

Andrew J. Rudnick, the president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, which organized the Accelerate Upstate conference, said he liked what he heard.

"He gets it," Rudnick said. "He knows it's not about throwing money at the symptoms. It's the causes."

Still, Rudnick said much work needs to be done to revive the upstate economy, which is suffering from a declining population and a painful shift from the decline of the businesses that once formed the backbone of many upstate regions, from IBM in Binghamton and Carrier Corp. in Syracuse to today's shrinking state government in Albany.

Compounding upstate's problems, Rudnick said, is its political weakness in Albany, where the region accounts for just 40 percent of the seats in the Assembly, and downstate residents fill all of the major statewide elected offices.

"Upstate-only priorities have a difficult time getting attention, let alone political action," he said.

The two-day session, which concludes today at three locations, has drawn more than 300 registered participants. The event aims to develop a plan to spur economic growth across upstate and accelerate the pace of projects that are a top priority in the region.

Within six weeks, its organizers hope to complete an "action plan" based on recommendations developed during the session that will be distributed to participants and sent to political leaders in Albany.

"The next two days are about working together and feedback," Rudnick said.