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WNY development panel airs plan Draft proposal focuses on creating jobs, getting the best return on state funding

Creating jobs and finding ways to get the biggest bang for the buck out of investments made in Western New York are emerging as top priorities in the strategic plan being developed by a state-backed economic development council.

The Western New York Regional Economic Development Council on Tuesday night outlined a draft of its strategic regional plan that also calls for increased collaboration among area schools, businesses and government agencies.

The plan puts a major emphasis on improved worker training, which council officials said would help create a work force with the skills needed for jobs available today and expected to be created in the future.

It encourages "smart growth" that minimizes sprawl and leads to investment in the region's cities and town centers.

And the plan places a high priority on entrepreneurship to foster the development of new commercial products born out of research done at local universities and the region's life sciences industry, while also providing a broader array of services and funding for fledgling companies.

"It's regional in nature," said Howard A. Zemsky, the local developer who serves as co-chairman of the regional development council.

"It does build on our strengths, and it focuses on key industry sectors," he said, from advanced manufacturing, education, tourism and agriculture, to logistics, life sciences, energy and professional services.

The plan, which must be finalized by a state deadline of Nov. 14, will form the centerpiece of the council's other main task: trying to secure state funding for projects it believes best suit that plan. "We've identified different strategies and tactics. Now we have to work them," Zemsky said.

He stressed that the strategic plan has not been completed, saying it could be revised based on comments from the public, either at Tuesday night's forum held to unveil the plan or submitted independently.

"We're 80 percent of the way there," Zemsky said. "I'm really quite optimistic that we'll have a strong plan and be on time."

In July Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo formed 10 councils across the state that will compete for about $200 million in state funding, with the top four plans each receiving $40 million. The $40 million consists of $25 million in capital funding through the Empire State Development Corp. and $15 million in Excelsior Tax Credits.

The next six proposals will split the remaining $40 million.

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

Zemsky said he expects that the Western New York council will receive several dozen major proposals for large-scale "transformative" projects and hundreds more seeking smaller scale funding. Applications for funding are due by Monday; the council must recommend to the state which projects it thinks should receive funding by mid-November; and the state is expected to make its decision in December.

"The ideal project creates a lot of jobs and throws off a lot of investment," Zemsky said.

Lewiston resident Amy Hope Witryol urged the council to publicly release detailed information on how it rates each of the more than 400 projects that are expected to seek funding. "Any aspect of the decision process that is transparent will instill public confidence," she said.

The plan focuses on a handful of key areas:

Labor -- The plan calls for better coordination between local schools and job-training programs and the region's businesses, which often complain that they have available jobs but can't find qualified workers to fill them.

Education -- While the region's 21 colleges and their 105,000 students are a key advantage, council officials said the area's struggles in creating quality jobs result in too many young people moving away and too few moving in. The plan calls for closer ties between the business community and university researchers and expanded efforts to help commercialize the fruits of that research.

"We're doing a good job attracting that research funding, but we're not doing a good job commercializing that," said Christina Orsi, the regional director of Empire State Development in Buffalo. "We're focused on creating a culture of entrepreneurship."

"Higher education, in and of itself, is an industry, but we also view it as an enabler," Zemsky said.

Tourism -- The plan recommends building on key attractions, such as Niagara Falls, and calls for creating a sophisticated tourism infrastructure to do a better job getting the word out about local attractions and helping tourists find them. The goal is to get tourists to stay longer and spend more money. The average tourist visiting Western New York spends only about $50 a day, Orsi said.

"A lot of it is a more welcoming environment," she said. "How do we get them here and then send them out throughout the region?"

Advanced manufacturing -- The council suggests touting Western New York as a center for advanced manufacturing, capitalizing on a work force with extensive factory skills.

Professional services -- The plan places a high priority on white-collar jobs, especially in back office and customer contact centers that could provide quality jobs for local graduates and capitalize on the region's cost advantages over many big cities.

Many of the ideas included in the strategic plan have been touted by other local organizations, including the Buffalo Niagara Partnership's annual regional agenda of economic development priorities.

But Zemsky said the council's plan, because it was formed by a state initiative and has been identified by state officials as a key part of the criteria for evaluating economic development projects, has a head start in becoming the guidepost for the region's development initiatives.

email: drobinson@buffnews.com

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