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Cuomo aide offers update on state plans for Buffalo; But Katz gives few details on $1 billion proposal

Five months after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo promised $1 billion in state funding to encourage business growth in Buffalo, a key adviser barnstormed the region Wednesday to update community leaders on the status of the closely watched project.

Bruce Katz, co-director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, reported on the results of three months of institution research into this region's economic strengths and weaknesses.

But Katz and other officials offered few details on precisely how, or when, the "Buffalo Billion" will be spent on regional business development.

"This is a first step in a longer process," Katz said in his lunchtime speech to 430 people at the University at Buffalo's Partners Day program held in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, one of three appearances in the area Wednesday.

Katz, a longtime acquaintance of the governor who is advising the state for free, offered five main goals he and other researchers identified as holding future promise for the region.

They include speeding up the commercialization of scientific research, providing a better support network for advanced manufacturing companies and fostering a clean economy.

Katz identified communities that are home to development projects worth emulating in this region, and as the next step in the billion-dollar process he'd like to see representatives from those areas brought here to share their success stories.

But the state has put on hold the previously announced plan to hire a global management consulting firm to guide the billion-dollar investment.

And state officials could not say whether any of the $1 billion would be spent by the end of the year, though they emphasized the need to move deliberately on this project.

"We want to be careful about what we're spending our money on," Irene Baker, director of the state's regional economic development councils, said in a meeting with the editorial board of The Buffalo News with Katz and Christina P. Orsi, regional director for Empire State Development.

Cuomo, in his State of the State address in January, pledged $1 billion to the Buffalo region in what was billed as a game-changing boost to local economic-development efforts.

The Western New York Economic Development Council, with Empire State Development, ultimately will decide how the money is spent.

But Cuomo tapped Katz to help develop the best strategies for using the money, and the planning expert said the state's commitment is an unusual opportunity to shape the future.

Brookings in March began a three-month study of the local economy, with the assistance of the UB Regional Institute and Buffalo Niagara Enterprise.

The research, as released Wednesday, includes findings well known to area residents: Our economy has grown sluggishly compared with the national average; we've lost jobs in key industrial sectors; and we have seen decreased population coupled with increased sprawl.

But Katz sees untapped potential in several features of the region, including its colleges and universities, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, a still-strong manufacturing sector and proximity to Toronto.

"This is a very, very strong base to build on here," he said.

State officials hope the planned $1 billion in public investment will spur $5 billion in private-sector investment.

Most of this growth will come from companies that are already here, Katz said, but local growth will attract interest from out-of-town companies.

Which projects will receive funding from the state pot?

Katz pointed to small-bore examples, such as a statewide program in Michigan that matches engineering students to internships, and larger attitudinal shifts such as Copenhagen, Denmark's, push to create a clean economy of the future.

"This is next-wave public policy," Katz said.

Only $100 million of this pledge was included in the 2012 state budget, and Katz and Baker both emphasized the need to spend the money wisely. The state put out a request for proposals from consulting firms, and received them in April, but now is reviewing them and has no plans to hire anyone anytime soon, Baker said.

Katz was the keynote speaker at UB Partners Day, which highlights work conducted by staff and students in cooperation with area companies, government agencies and non-profits.

Earlier Wednesday, Katz attended a meeting of the regional council on the UB North Campus.