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Meet the new Buffalo Billion czar: Howard Zemsky

The Buffalo Billion is now squarely in the hands of Howard Zemsky and Empire State Development.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Friday stripped SUNY Polytechnic Institute from any role overseeing key Buffalo Billion projects, from the SolarCity solar panel factory in South Buffalo to the Athenex drug development project in Dunkirk and the IBM data analytics hub in Buffalo.

[Related: Cuomo says corruption case will not slow Buffalo’s forward progress]

While giving Empire State Development oversight responsibilities for those key Buffalo Billion projects, along with the Albany Molecular Research drug development facility in the Conventus Building on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the governor also reaffirmed his commitment to his signature economic development initiative.

Cuomo also said he wants Zemsky to come up with a plan for a Phase 2 of the Buffalo Billion initiative during the next three months, with a goal of unveiling the next step in the economic development plan during this State of the State address in January.

The shakeup of the Buffalo Billion program’s management came a day after U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara charged nine people, including Alain R. Kaloyeros, the CEO of SUNY Polytechnic and one of the visionaries behind several key Buffalo Billion projects, with corruption in a pay-to-play scheme that funneled lucrative contracts on the SolarCity project to Buffalo contractor LPCiminelli. Three LP Ciminelli executives were charged as well.

“We are not going to miss a beat,” Cuomo said.

“The Buffalo Billion is not about projects in the ground or nine individuals,” he said. “The Buffalo Billion is about a whole enterprise that has been going on for a number of years.” It is aimed at transforming the Buffalo Niagara region from an area beaten down by decades of economic decline to a place with a new sense of economic opportunity.

[Related: What is Empire State Development, and who is Howard Zemsky?]

Cuomo and Zemsky both said it was too early to say what the second phase of the Buffalo Billion plan might include. Cuomo said he will wait to decide how much money the state is willing to commit to the second phase until he sees the plan that Zemsky comes up with.

Zemsky said he hopes to build “more of an integrated, collaborative and communicative relationship” with officials at SUNY Polytechnic, which under Kaloyeros played a leading role in state-backed technology developments across the state, from the nanotechnology hub in Albany to a computer chip venture outside Utica to SolarCity’s plan to build the Western Hemisphere’s largest solar panel factory in South Buffalo.

Cuomo said the corruption charges shouldn’t stop the Buffalo Billion projects from moving forward. Many of the projects already are in their advanced stages of construction or in their early stages of operation.

“These charges against these nine individuals will have absolutely nothing to do with the energy and the progress and the momentum of Western New York’s revitalization,” he said.
By shifting responsibility for all of the Buffalo Billion projects to Empire State Development, the programs will be subject to the state agency’s procurement policies, which generally are more stringent and subject to move oversight than the policies in place at SUNY Polytechnic. Cuomo also said the state would adopt changes to its procurement system recommended in a report by outside investigator Bart Schwartz.

“Howard’s first mission is to learn from what happened and make sure it will never happen again,” Cuomo said.

[David Robinson: Corruption charges won’t sink the Buffalo Billion]

Zemsky said he believes the economic strategy that was developed five years ago, when he was co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, remains valid today and should be the basis of economic development policy in the region going forward.

That plan focused on building up downtown areas and investing in industries where the region had a competitive advantage, such as advanced manufacturing and life sciences, to important sectors, such as tourism, and woefully weak areas, such as entrepreneurship.

“We’ve been strategic,” Zemsky said. “We’re going to continue to be strategic and we’re going to continue to build upon our plan from 2011.”



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