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Wanted: consultant to share state cash; Development group seeks expert, targets $1 billion pledge

The Western New York Regional Development Council is getting some outside help in its hunt to find companies willing to make big investments in the region for a share of the $1 billion in economic development funds being dangled by the state.

The state is looking to hire a consultant with expertise in helping municipalities recruit businesses to work with council officials, who said Tuesday they also expect to receive assistance from Bruce Katz, who heads the metropolitan policy program at the Brookings Institution.

"This is a really big challenge," said Satish Tripathi, the University at Buffalo president who is regional co-chairman of the development council. "We need to do it right, and we need to use all the resources and the brain power we have available."

The state currently is talking with consultants who have experience working with municipalities on economic development programs, said Howard Zemsky, the Buffalo developer who is the development council's other regional co-chairman.

"There's a lot of work going on to get us the right resources," Zemsky said. "This is going to be a process. There will be a process and a plan behind it."

The strategic plan the council developed last fall as part of the statewide competition in which it won $103 million in economic development funding will serve as the foundation for the region's efforts. The goal is to find takers for the additional $1 billion that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has earmarked specifically for major development projects in the Buffalo Niagara region.

But both Zemsky and Tripathi said the plan needs further fine-tuning because it was developed in a fairly short period of time to serve as the guidepost in the frenzied statewide competition for the original round of funding.

"It was not put together in terms of a $1 billion challenge," Tripathi said. "We really need to step back and ask, 'What else can we do?' "

Zemsky said he hopes to have the consultant on board by the end of February.

"We organized for the sprint. We cast our net very wide," he said at the council's first meeting since the funding was awarded in December. "As we move from the sprint to the 5K, we've organized ourselves a little differently."

In state budget hearings in Albany on Tuesday, the governor's chief economic adviser, Kenneth Adams, said the Cuomo administration is looking to fund "transformational" projects that will make for "spectacular" job creation with the $1 billion in promised funding.

"This is not an imperative to rush to spend the money," Adams said.

Cuomo's proposed state budget also includes $200 million in statewide funding for a second round of competition among the development councils. Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy said the upcoming round will put more of an emphasis on regional cooperation and collaboration.

"It will be far less about competition region-to-region and more about collaboration," he said. "Look for collaborations that will expand job opportunities across regions," such as initiatives that connect suppliers in one part of the state with companies in another.

"One of the things we have not done well across New York is to connect these opportunities," he said.

Officials from Empire State Development Corp. will be meeting with the businesses and organizations that won a piece of the $103 million in state funding that was handed out in December to formalize those proposals and establish benchmarks that must be met to obtain the promised state aid.

Christina Orsi, Empire State Development's regional director in Buffalo, also said she will talk with the recipients about how their projects will be affected by the gap in funding between what they requested from the state and what they actually received.

In most cases, the funding gap will mean the recipients must seek additional funds from other sources or be forced to scale back or stretch out the timetable for their project, she said.

Alfred University, which received $2.8 million of the $6.5 million in aid it sought for its High Temperature Materials Characterization Laboratory, is pursuing other funding opportunities with the federal government and private foundations, said Doreen Edwards, the dean of the university's Engineering School.

Roswell Park Cancer Institute, which received $5.1 million of the $8 million it requested for a pilot project to build a database that includes genetic information gathered from volunteer participants from throughout the Buffalo Niagara region, may scale back the initial scope of the project.

While Roswell Park officials initially hoped to gather samples from up to 1,000 volunteers in the pilot program, the initial effort now will likely involve 100 to 200 participants, said Candace Johnson, Roswell Park's deputy director. Instead of hiring 90 to 100 people initially, the first wave of hiring probably will include 30 to 40 jobs, she said.

News Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious contributed to this report.