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Koelmel's Prospectus keynote cites need for collaboration; Bank CEO optimistic about reviving region

Whether it's improving education, growing the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus or renewing the focus on economic development, Western New York needs to put egos, politics and negativity aside to work collaboratively if the region is to succeed, First Niagara Financial Group's top executive told a business crowd Thursday night.

Speaking at The Buffalo News' Prospectus Premiere, John R. Koelmel urged more than 200 attendees to step up to the plate and be leaders in efforts to revive the region.

He cited the potential of the Medical Campus, attempts to reform education, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's $1 billion pledge of economic-development aid for Buffalo as opportunities that must not be missed.

"We have to deliver. We have to stop the rope-a-dope and deliver," Koelmel, president and CEO of the Buffalo-based bank, said to applause. "We as a region need to get behind and help -- and be part of what will be and must be a real success. We finally have a road map for sustainable success, and we just need to get after it."

He compared this moment to the U.S. Olympic hockey team's historic victory over the Soviet Union in 1980, saying that it is "our time" to "go out and take it." And he pledged that First Niagara, the region's fastest-growing and now second-largest bank, will "continue to be out in front, pulling the train."

"It's our gold medal opportunity, and it's incumbent on us to take it," he said. "You can count on us at First Niagara to be there on the ice with you."

Koelmel, who has been CEO of First Niagara for five years, has catapulted himself and his bank into the local limelight with the bank's rapid growth and success in the midst of the worst recession in 80 years.

At the same time, he has inserted the bank into the local business scene as a civic leader, moving its headquarters to Buffalo's Larkin District, supporting revival efforts in that neighborhood, trumpeting education and mentoring, pushing economic development, and even rescuing the struggling Empire State Games.

The gregarious Koelmel spoke about the success of his bank and the need to seize opportunities, such as the bank's pending purchase of 195 HSBC Bank USA branches statewide, with $15 billion in deposits.

"It's a really big deal for us, but it's going to be an even bigger deal for Buffalo and Western New York," he said. "The opportunity to step up, step in and fill in the void was very, very significant."

Koelmel acknowledged the responsibility that comes with taking a leadership role, and encouraged those in attendance to follow that path.

"We appreciate the opportunity to play a role in Buffalo as we pivot," he said. "We take our responsibility very seriously. You'll see us continue to lead by example."

Citing the cooperation of First Niagara with developer Howard A. Zemsky in redeveloping the Larkin District, Koelmel said that this "epitomizes the type of collaboration that's needed and necessary in Western New York."

"We're looking to create a sort of snowball effect for the mayor and others to follow across the city," he said. "You won't find either of us sitting on the sidelines."

He said the waterfront development "epitomizes what's the worst of Buffalo and the best of Buffalo," and blamed egos and politics for creating "process, not progress."

"The waterfront is what it is because we couldn't get out of our own way," he said. "We're now playing small ball. We've given up on Bass Pro. We had that line in the water for a long time."

Koelmel called the Medical Campus "the real driver for Buffalo and Western New York," citing the new vascular institute and the eventual move of Women & Children's Hospital to the campus. "We have to deliver, no pun intended," he said.

"This is the game-changer. Everyone is lined up behind the Medical Campus, and we need to come together as a community and deliver on that promise," he said. He acknowledged challenges for Roswell Park Cancer Institute, but called it a "vital, critical asset for this community" and said that "the right people are focused and engaged, and I'm confident we'll have a good outcome."

Koelmel also backed the need for reform to the state's education system, particularly in upstate cities such as Buffalo, calling current conditions "unacceptable for us as a community and as parents."

"Everybody's got lobbyists. Who doesn't? The kids. They're the ones that matter," he said. "Know that many of us are focused and ready to effect real change."

Finally, Koelmel cited the regional economic-development council's accomplishments and Cuomo's $1 billion pledge to stimulate job creation in the region as "enormous opportunities" that "this region has not seen in a long time, if ever."

"Have 'a billion' and 'Buffalo' ever been used in the same sentence before?" he joked.

But Koelmel also said it's time to get behind it.

"Now we have a plan. It's time to work it. This is what a lot of us have been waiting for and working for," he said. "I don't know what the governor's agenda is, but I'm proud and thrilled to be part of it. Now it's on us to make it happen. We need to step up like never before, ensure the egos and politics are pushed behind us, to make room for real progress."

email: jepstein@buffnews.com