When the Western New York business community seeks to speak with a single voice, it's usually Andrew Rudnick's.
Rudnick is the president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the umbrella business advocacy group for the region.
Rudnick came to Buffalo 25 years ago to lead the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation. He became president of the Partnership 18 years ago, when it formed as a union between the foundation and the Chamber of Commerce.
Perhaps due to his longevity, he has become a lightning rod for complaints about the region's staid business climate. But whether he is criticized as a defender of the status quo or hailed as a brilliant tactician who helps some businesses thrive in a lackluster economy, Rudnick never shies from expressing his views.
>Q: What do you see happening these days in Buffalo Niagara?
A: Everything that's happening in this region, like everything else around the country, is significantly impacted by the federal economics, international economics and uncertainty about a lot of federal programs. So we're not unique.
Having said that, we have some strengths. One strength that has borne us well in the last three or four years is our no-boom, no-bust mentality, which really means a conservative business investment, business decision-making mentality. We never overexpanded, we never overbuilt, we never went outside of our core competencies, which a number of other businesses in other regions did, and those regions suffered.
The second is what made this region strong 100-plus years ago, and that is our access to the Great Lakes, our low-cost hydropower and our border location. So, in summary, it's location, location, location.
>Q: You've talked for years of the challenges facing upstate New York. Are they better or worse now?
A: To some degree, they're better by comparison. The stability of this community and I think some of the directions in Albany that have started to be taken -- they still are a work in progress -- probably put us in a better position compared to other places than we've been at any point in the past 25 years.
I do think that the Cuomo administration in Albany is committed to improving the environment for business economics throughout the state, including upstate, and so that bears favorably for us. But again, that's not going to have an impact today, and we've got to see this whole thing play out over a longer period of time.
But you know, one indication is the movement of people. We lost so many people between 1980 and 2005. I think we lost them to places that were growing fast at that time. Many of those people have come back or have sought to come back because of the volatility of those places and the inherent attractiveness of this region.
People want to be here, and if we have the jobs for them, they will return here in droves. So it's a matter of making sure that our job creation continues to be better than it's been in the past.
>Q: Is the Cuomo administration more serious about upstate growth than predecessors?
A: The administration is serious about improving the business investment climate throughout New York State. I'm not sure this administration has an upstate focus. I don't mean that in a bad way. I think it has a statewide focus. And if the state improves, upstate will benefit.
>Q: The Partnership, and you personally, have at times been criticized for not doing very much. How do you respond?
A: First, I think it's bunk. We've reported on specific progress, and we've done that because we feel accountable, and we've done that every year since we were founded 18-plus years ago I think our track record is clear and it's very positive.
[But] we're not perfect by a long shot. We exist in a community and a state which has not recognized the value of businesses and business investment and the importance of the employer community as much as other states have. And so the organizations that represent those interests, organizations like ours, become the target of people's frustrations about issues that oftentimes have nothing to do with us or are much larger than anything this organization can do.
I think that comes with the turf. You don't take it personally We continue to do our job. Our members continue to be very supportive of us. Our investors continue to invest and express significant support for what we're trying to do.
I acknowledge the criticism. We will continue to maintain our course and continue to improve. We all have to improve. That concept of continuous improvement applies to us as much as anyone else.
>Q: Where do you see Buffalo Niagara in five years, and where do you hope it will be?
A: I do think it's going to be to some degree tied to how quickly and effectively Washington deals with some fundamental ills in our national economy. Because unless that happens, meaning Washington does deal with it and deals with it soon, the best situation five years from now is where we are now.
In that context, I continue to think our binational location, our proximity to Canada, the amount of trade, tourism and, to a great degree, cross-border humanity, the personal interactions, continues to be an opportunity for us that should create a larger binational community on both sides of the river.
The second thing that should be a benefit for us, again given national issues, is our "eds and meds" emphasis in this community: life science, health care, colleges and universities. If they have a chance to grow the way they have grown and deepened in the last decade, we have an enormous competitive asset.
So Canada, eds and meds, and again, our proximity to water and hydropower -- each of them is a precious asset in so many places -- should provide literal and figurative fuel for the economic growth that we have.