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A new look for the Buffalo Billion

The Buffalo Billion is evolving - and a big reason for that is the changes that have happened in the Buffalo Niagara region over the past five years.

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo first proposed the Buffalo Billion initiative five years ago, it was as much of a wake-up call to jar the Buffalo Niagara region's battered psyche as it was an economic development program that promised big money for new projects in a downtrodden, investment-starved community.

Five years later, with unemployment down and a positive vibe building across a skeptical community, the plan that Cuomo unveiled Monday for a second phase of the Buffalo Billion had a decidedly different feel.

This plan - Cuomo called it the Buffalo Billion Squared - isn't about headline-grabbing mega-projects, like SolarCity's solar panel factory or a new IBM data analytics center, like the original initiative was.

This plan is designed to build on the seeds that were planted in the first phase, adding new investments in the same type of initiatives that shaped the first plan, but without the same element of shock and awe. At $500 million, it's about half the size of the original program. And it has the feel of a more traditional economic development effort.

But Cuomo said his plan - if it gets through the state Legislature - still can pack a powerful punch.

"There's a synergy between the two of them that will be exponential," Cuomo said during his regional State of the State address at the University at Buffalo in Amherst. "We want to make sure every community is part of this renaissance."

[Related: Local leaders praise Cuomo's $500 million plan]

Part Two still focuses on Buffalo and Niagara Falls, but about 20 percent of the initiative's proposed funding would go to other Western New York communities, from $5 million in financing to the National Comedy Center in Jamestown to a $20 million contest for 18 municipalities to compete for funding for downtown revitalization projects.

While most of the original Buffalo Billion was directed toward big projects run by big companies, the second phase aims to lay the groundwork for small businesses and entrepreneurs to build on the region's improved economic prospects. It pumps more money into neighborhood revitalization initiatives.

"We started with the Big Boys, and now it's going to trickle down into the smaller businesses," said Colleen DiPirro, the president of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce.

To be sure, the second phase of the Buffalo Billion builds on the same pillars as the original plan: focus on smart growth; build a trained work force; invest in 21st Century industries, like life sciences and advanced manufacturing; encourage innovation and revive the region's tourism industry built around Niagara Falls.

But the approach is to focus less on mega-projects and more on making Buffalo Niagara the kind of place where, as Empire State Development chief Howard Zemsky explained, people can get the skills they need to find a 21st Century job, actually get that job and have transportation in place so they can get to that job.

[Related: What's in the Buffalo Billion, part 2]

So instead of new solar panel factories and drug development labs, the Buffalo Billion II aims to help city residents reach jobs in the suburbs and bring more suburbanites downtown by pushing for one of the region's dead-end projects: extending the Metro Rail to Amherst.

It aims to breathe new life into the old Bethlehem Steel complex by proposing funding that would allow for the acquisition of up to 1,000 acres along the old industrial site that could be turned into an industrial park, ready for companies that need a place where they can build quickly. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said the county has held advanced negotiations with the site's owner, Tecumseh Redevelopment, about acquiring up to 200 acres closest to Route 5.

It builds on the good work that already has gone on at Canalside and the waterfront, with plans to create new activities and amenities along the Outer Harbor. It would create a Buffalo Blueway that could add 18 new sites where residents could access the waterfront and the Buffalo River.

To answer critics who say the original Buffalo Billion didn't do enough for the East Side, more than 10 percent of the proposed funding - $60 million in all - is set aside for East Side revitalization projects. The Buffalo Manufacturing Works advanced manufacturing center would move into the Northland Corridor complex that also will house a worker training center from the first part of the Buffalo Billion. Another $10 million is set for the Better Buffalo Fund that finances Main Street and transportation initiatives.

"This is designed to get more into the neighborhoods," said Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown. "That's exactly what we wanted to see."

It continues the state's promising moves to make Niagara Falls a nicer place to visit, proposing the addition of 135 acres of green space along the Niagara Gorge. "It will be the largest expansion of green space since the days of Olmsted," Cuomo said.

It also is a recognition that, especially with younger tourists, green is a powerful drawing card, said Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster. "A lot of these investments are designed to take us in a greener direction in Niagara Falls," he said.

The proposal also calls for the construction of "a world-class lodge" on Goat Island, probably on the upstream portion, which would add to the more than 800 new hotel rooms that have been added in recent years to spruce up its sometimes shabby lodging stock.

For now, though, it's just a proposal, and its fate depends on Cuomo's ability to push it through a state Legislature that isn't on the best of terms with the governor these days.

Brown, however, is optimistic about its chances. "He moves quickly. He wants projects to move very fast," the mayor said. "He and all of us are going to hit the ground running."



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