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Drawing a road map to revive WNY's economy

Howard Zemsky already has made his mark on the Buffalo Niagara region with his revival of the Larkin District.

Now, the developer is looking to leave a legacy of a different sort as co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Development Council, which is crafting a long-term strategic plan for the region and will soon be endorsing a handful of major projects that match its criteria in a statewide competition for millions in state funding.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in July 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 in grants and 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 discussed the strategic plan.

>Q: The deadline for picking projects and finalizing the region's strategic plan is Nov. 14. This must be a hectic time.

A: We've taken the planning part of this project very seriously. We think that's the foundation on which you can realistically score projects and make sure projects are consistent with the plan. Our approach has been to put a high priority on the plan.

If we do a good job on the plan, the plan has value in and of itself, independent of the funding. And to the extent we have projects that are consistent with the plan, I think it makes it more compelling.

>Q: So is the idea to come up with a road map that not only the council can use, but other development organizations?

A: It's regional in nature. It does build on our strengths. It targets some specific industry sectors, and it weaves into it several of what we call 'enablers.' Higher education, in and of itself, is an industry, but it's also what we call an enabler.

Then we've got several cross cutting themes that really run across the different industries in different ways. Those would include things like entrepreneurship and business development, job readiness.

>Q: The report also talks a lot about smart growth.

A: We burden ourselves tremendously with sprawl. We have spread a stagnant population over a considerably larger land mass. By doing that, we continue to invest mightily in infrastructure, and maintaining infrastructure and services.

That's something we should recognize and say, look, we have to have a plan. We have to first and foremost help ourselves. Let's embrace some sensible policies. We can only advocate for this, but we encourage smart growth because we need to put an end to the redundancies and the tax burden associated with that.

>Q: The report also talks about ways to stop young people from leaving the region.

A: We want to attract young people to our region. What we have baked into our demographic cake is potentially an ongoing population decline unless we're more successful in recruiting young people to this region. The statistics show we do not have an unusual amount of out-migration. We have an unusually low amount of in-migration.

I think we should have, as part of our criteria as we look at these projects, things like: Is the initiative inclusive, does it promote smart growth? Does it build on our strengths? Is it regional in nature? Is it oriented to young adults?

We put that in there because we need to acknowledge that we have this as an issue and we should realize that decisions we make sometimes impact whether we're creating an environmental climate on whether young people are coming here or not.

>Q: How do you do that?

A: Having several college-age kids and watching them, they are not saying to themselves 'Where can I go where the sprawl is greatest?'

They want to live in areas that have some public transportation; areas that are taking ecology seriously; areas where there are job opportunities; areas where there is some density; areas where there are great outdoor activities; areas where there is some vibrancy in and around town centers or urban cores.

We've tried to identify that many of these things are important. We can succeed if we acknowledge and work to address some of the critical issues we have and build on our strengths.

>Q: What type of projects are the council looking at?

A: The ideal project creates, retains or fills a lot of jobs or contains a lot of investment and hopefully, touches some of these other criteria.

Q: Where do the 21 local colleges and universities fit in?

A: We score very high on attracting research dollars. We don't necessarily score as high on generating private industry jobs from that.

>Q: Part of that is a lack of funding for the commercialization of products that are spawned by that research.

A: That's correct. We've identified that as part of our initiatives around entrepreneurship.

>Q: How is this plan different from what the Buffalo Niagara Partnership does with its regional agenda and with what Accelerate Upstate came out with this month? They all talk about many of the same things.

A: We're doing it in collaboration with the state, and I think that's extremely important. We're not initiating a project trying to get the state's attention.

We're working with the state on an initiative that they launched, which is saying to us, we want a coherent, home-grown economic development plan and we're going to count on you guys to deliver that. That's a very different model right there, in my opinion.

And we're going to make sure that most all of the assets that get deployed by the state in your region are being reviewed for consistency with these home-grown, overarching strategic objectives.

That's quite a different way of going about things in New York.

>Q: How hard has it been to develop a consensus and overcome parochialism among council members?

A: We're making good progress. We've really worked hard, so I think we've earned respect. We've included a lot of public input and had a transparent process. I think we've built up a reservoir of credibility and goodwill around this process.

>Q: What did you learn from the public input that was part of this process?

A: One of the things we heard loud and clear from these public forums was that we have a lot of jobs that are going unfilled and we have a lot of people looking for jobs. That should be some low-hanging fruit, in terms of doing a better job matching up people looking for work with jobs that are going unfilled.

We've also got to solve the issue of graduating young people without sufficient skills to enter the workforce.

>Q: What do you want to see as the legacy of this strategic plan?

A: We'll put a stake in the ground and say here's what our plan is. Then the idea is to work it. I'd like to think that we'll have used the time in establishing the plan, then to evaluate projects and funding in the state, and start to get some of these critical issues on the table so the region and people are thinking about how they work together and how we can move the region forward.

We'll work it. Continue to monitor it. Improve it. We can continue to dig deeper. The plan doesn't end when the plan gets submitted. The plan begins when the plan gets submitted. The work begins at that point.