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New York Power Authority’s role growing as economic force in Buffalo Niagara

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo came to Buffalo last week to unveil a site for a new $44 million worker training facility in Buffalo, the New York Power Authority was footing about a third of the project’s cost.

Earlier this month, organizers of the 43North business plan competition announced that it had attracted more than 3,000 qualified entrants to this year’s $5 million contest – with most of the funding coming from the Power Authority.

With its power plants generating a steady flow of cash, the Power Authority has been playing a growing role in the Buffalo Niagara region’s economic development.

“We’re involved in many, many more areas than in the power plants,” said John R. Koelmel, the Western New Yorker who serves as the authority’s chairman. “I think it’s been very beneficial to Western New York.”

Those initiatives, some stemming from the agency’s 2007 relicensing agreement for the Niagara Power Project and others from separate initiatives, have helped fund the Canalside project and subsidize dozens of local businesses through allocations of low-cost hydropower from the Lewiston plant.

“Think of it as a dividend,” Gil C. Quiniones, the Power Authority’s president and CEO, said during a meeting Monday with editors and reporters of The Buffalo News. Included in the examples he cited:

• The authority has committed to providing funding for the eventual removal of a stretch of the north section of the Robert Moses Parkway in Niagara Falls, from Main Street to Findlay Drive, although the exact shape the work will take still is being discussed. The project design and review portion of the work is budgeted at $1.5 million. Final design on the project is targeted for the end of 2016 or early 2017. The total cost of the construction for this phase previously was estimated to be roughly $25 million.

• The Western New York Power Proceeds Allocation Board, which directs funds to businesses and initiatives using money raised by selling unallocated electricity from the Power Project, has allocated $25 million for 30 projects. The fund currently has $15.8 million available for other projects.

• The Power Authority provided the vast majority of the funding for 43North last year and increased its contribution to the business plan competition this year to $6 million, or more than 80 percent of the organization’s total funding.

• The authority has spent more than $274 million of the $1 billion that it pledged to invest in the Buffalo Niagara region in a 50-year period under its relicensing agreement. To increase the impact of that money, the authority has accelerated some of the spending to allow projects to move forward at a faster pace, rather than relying on a smaller stream of payments spread out over the 50 years, Koelmel said.

• The workforce-development center to go on Northland Avenue in Buffalo, announced last week by Cuomo, will provide training for local workers in both the advanced manufacturing and electrical and renewable energy fields – two areas where a wave of upcoming retirements are expected to lead to thousands of job openings. Between 30 and 35 percent of utility workers are expected to reach the age when they could retire within the next five years, while upward of 17,000 advanced manufacturing jobs are expected to become available because of retirements.

• The authority still has about 40 megawatts of electricity from the Power Project that has been designated for economic development but has not been allocated to any particular company. That gives the region a particularly lucrative incentive for power-intensive businesses that are expanding or moving to the region, including companies such as SolarCity, which is building North America’s largest solar panel factory in Buffalo.

“We’ve been actively trying to allocate it,” Quiniones said.

Koelmel said economic development is a key part of the Power Authority’s efforts.

“Our primary mission is to enable and support what others do,” he said. “We’re typically not out front.”