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Balance of Buffalo Billion ‘ready to be spent,’ as a promise is kept

If anyone doubted that the Buffalo Billion was real, the proof is in the state budget.

Beyond the plans that have steadily trickled out over the last two years for hubs that specialize in clean energy, medical genomics, information technology and advanced manufacturing, the Buffalo Billion is about money – a massive commitment by the state to try to revive the economy in the Buffalo Niagara region.

Without money, the Buffalo Billion was a paper tiger. Now, that money is all there – officially.

The state budget agreement approved in Albany provides the final $680 million needed to fund the Buffalo Billion initiative completely.

No more questions about whether Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Legislature would actually come up with $1 billion, or if the initiative would gradually fizzle and turn into something smaller.

“This money is ready to go, and it’s ready to be spent,” said State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo. “It’s liquid.”

And while the budgetary commitment isn’t binding on future governors or State Legislatures, the fact that the money has been allocated means that to back away, the funding would have to be taken away from Buffalo Niagara. That’s a lot harder to do than to simply make a promise and then fail to pay for it.

The budget documents are vague on how the $680 million will be spent or a timetable for doing so, but Kennedy said that by including the funding in the state budget, the Buffalo Billion initiative is on solid financial footing. Cuomo and other state officials won’t have to return to the Legislature in the future seeking more money for projects in the Buffalo Billion.

The initiatives range from the creation of the RiverBend hub for clean-energy businesses in South Buffalo and centers for medical genomics, worker training and manufacturing innovation. Each initiative will take years to plan, build and bring to full operation.

But the money is there today.

“We knew this was the highest priority for the governor, but it’s extremely encouraging to see the money included in the budget,” said Howard A. Zemsky, co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council.

“This was a critical year to move on the funding due to all of the initiatives that we announced,” Zemsky said, from the RiverBend clean-energy hub to the medical genomics initiative at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the information technology that will be anchored by IBM Corp.

“It’s important to have the flexibility to make the investments strategically, as the opportunity to make investments presents itself,” Kennedy said.

All of a sudden, Buffalo Niagara is building momentum. It started seven years ago, when the region didn’t fall backward as far as the rest of the country during the Great Recession. While the recovery has been long and sluggish, Buffalo Niagara still managed to regain all of the jobs it lost during the downturn, something it failed to do after the 2001 recession. And while job growth still isn’t as rapid as the rest of the country, it has been decent by local standards, running at an annual pace of almost 1 percent in recent months.

Massive cranes stand at the HarborCenter construction project and at the Medical Campus. And it is hoped that the Buffalo Billion’s initiatives will plant the seeds for future development, especially in high-growth industries, by giving the region a competitive edge that will make companies want to come here.

“The prospects for the Western New York economy haven’t been this bright in a very long time, and the psychology of Western New York hasn’t been this upbeat in just as long,” Zemsky said.

The Buffalo Billion funding in the new budget follows $170 million in Excelsior Jobs Program tax credits and $150 million in capital spending approved in previous budgets. Add that up, and it totals $1 billion.

“The enactment of this budget fulfills the governor’s $1 billion commitment,” said Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore.

State officials have said they expect the funding approved in the current budget to be spent over a period of several years as the projects in the initiative move from concept to completion.

The budget agreement includes $33 million in funding for the Western New York Science Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park in Batavia – the first allocation from the Buffalo Billion for a project outside Erie and Niagara counties. The funding is restricted to projects that the state deems to be “regionally significant.”

“It’s a project with regional significance that would employ people from the Buffalo Niagara region,” Kennedy said. “Any time we can bring in jobs that potentially would go elsewhere, that’s good for the entire region.”

And the money already is flowing. Empire State Development Corp., the state’s main economic-development agency, on Friday approved $168 million in Buffalo Billion funding, including $118 million for the clean-energy and high-tech manufacturing hub planned for the former Republic Steel plant in South Buffalo.

The agency also approved a $50 million grant for the Buffalo Medical Innovation and Commercialization Hub on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, to create a facility that will support drug screening, pharmaceutical development and bioinformatics research and development, among other uses.

That’s not chump change. And it’s only the beginning.