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Partnership cites “difficult year” for business in New York state

For a business advocacy group, the state Legislature’s past session didn’t offer much to crow about.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers approved a “historic” minimum wage hike and “one of the most generous family leave programs in the U.S.,” said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

“It has been an extremely difficult year for business in New York state,” Gallagher-Cohen said in her annual report to members, held Wednesday in Larkinville.

The Partnership and upstate partners pushed back against a $15 per hour statewide minimum wage. In the end, a phased-in $15 per hour minimum wage was approved for downstate, while upstate’s minimum wage will rise to $12.50 per hour by 2020, eventually climbing to $15 on an indexed schedule in ensuing years.

“While it’s hard to claim victory, as it could have been much worse, it really could have been much worse,” Gallagher-Cohen said.

Greg Biryla, executive director of Unshackle Upstate, said an upstate coalition rallied to persuade lawmakers to see upstate and downstate as distinct economies, which produced different minimum wage plans for each. Biryla said that unified approach could be duplicated to advocate for other issues vital to upstate.

On the issue of cross-border trade, Gallagher-Cohen praised a planned pilot program for automated fee collection system at the Peace Bridge, aimed at reducing wait times for trucks heading to the United States.

She also said a $50 million modernization program for the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge should improve traffic flow across that span.

Gallagher-Cohen said the Partnership continues to focus on work force development as a way to combat poverty and unemployment.

And she complimented area banks for pledging $10 million for the Buffalo Building Reuse Project loan fund, to help bring more old properties back to life.

She noted that nearly 1,400 downtown housing units have either opened, are under construction, or have been proposed in the past few years.

Gallagher-Cohen said she remains “extremely confident” about the SolarCity manufacturing plant under construction at RiverBend.

The construction project has coped with delayed payments by the state for subcontractors, and in the bigger picture, SolarCity’s stock price has taken a hit. In a new wrinkle, Tesla has proposed acquiring SolarCity.

“It feels, with the people I deal with on the supply chain side and the people that I deal with on the labor side, that the company is fully committed to moving forward,” Gallagher-Cohen said.

“I can’t speak to sort of the macro issues that may impact SolarCity’s business model, but in terms of the feet they have on the ground and the construction of that project, it’s as real as anything I’ve seen.”