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As Rudnick departs, Partnership’s progress is measurable

Western New York has come a long way in the last 20 years, as the private sector assumed a leadership role, private investment and jobs took center stage, Albany recognized the unique needs and clout of upstate communities, and political leaders started viewing the area as a regional community that crosses local and even international borders.

That overview was the core of the farewell speech Tuesday by Andrew J. Rudnick, departing president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. The Partnership provided a copy of Rudnick’s speech.

Rudnick, 66, said that much of the change in the last two decades came as a result of the Partnership’s efforts. He was the first to lead the regional business group created in 1993 from the merger of the Greater Buffalo Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation.

“I feel we can all take pride in what’s been accomplished and how much better this community is today as a result,” Rudnick said, as he welcomed the group’s new CEO, Dottie Gallagher-Cohen. “Lots and lots of people have contributed to this measurable improvement.”

Reflecting on the past, Rudnick noted that the Partnership was formed at a time when Buffalo business leaders, weary of the region’s decades-long economic decline, had started taking matters into their own hands and calling for government to be more efficient. Its original mission statement – still unchanged – called on the group to take action to expand private-sector jobs and investments in the region.

He cited the Buffalo Financial Plan commissions of the 1990s that worked to help the city close its $50 million budget deficit and find $180 million in unnecessary public school spending that could be shifted to the classroom. He also listed the Erie County Stabilization Project of 2005, which recommended changes to fix Erie County’s budget woes.

And he identified the Framework for Regional Growth that focused on “smart development” and regional land-use planning, and the more recent Buffalo Building ReUse Project to address the 2 million square feet of vacant office space in downtown Buffalo.

All were largely directed by business leaders, through the Partnership. “Twenty or so years ago, people in government thought they were in charge,” he said. “Maybe they were, but things have changed immensely since then.”

Economic development – centered on creating private-sector jobs and investment rather than public-sector growth – is now the focus, he said, citing the establishment of the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise as a regional economic-development recruitment organization. BNE has worked with 293 companies since 1999, helping attract $3.3 billion in investment and helping create or retain 39,000 jobs.

“Twenty or so years ago, elected officials saw their role to be to create government jobs for their constituents,” Rudnick said.

“Now they are being evaluated on if and how they’ve helped create a climate to stimulate private-sector success.”

The rest of the state now recognizes the upstate region as having different conditions and needs than the areas below the Tappan Zee Bridge, where two-thirds of the state’s population lives, Rudnick noted.

That follows the joint effort by the Partnership and the Rochester Business Alliance, which formed Unshackle Upstate in 2006 to jointly advocate for changes and actions for upstate employers and taxpayers.

The coalition now consists of more than 80 business and trade groups, whose members employ more than 1.5 million New Yorkers. And, Rudnick said, its efforts have helped yield results through UB 2020, the statewide property tax cap, state pension reforms and the Buffalo Billion investment pledge.

Finally, local leaders no longer think just of their own communities but of the Buffalo Niagara region, he said. Early on, the Partnership even created a new map of the region with the international border in the middle, and then changed its name from Greater Buffalo Partnership.

“Our job has been to build and improve Buffalo Niagara assets and initiatives that are fundamental to the strength of this regional/binational location,” he said, citing the expansion and repositioning of Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the efforts to support and stabilize the Bills and Sabres, and regional lobbying efforts in Washington for both Western New York and the larger Great Lakes region.

As for his successor, Gallagher-Cohen – who called herself the “second-most popular and without a doubt the least controversial CEO of the Partnership” – joked that “this job is going to be a lot harder than I thought.”

“Listening to that litany of accomplishments, I can understand why you’ve decided to retire,” she said. “I am exhausted just hearing it.”