Share this article

print logo

Will New York build on the Buffalo Billion?

David Robinson

This is Buffalo Niagara's best opportunity to reverse a half century of decline.

But it's entirely possible that the region's big moment could prove to be fleeting.

That was readily apparent on Monday, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo visited Niagara Falls for the ribbon cutting on a new DoubleTree Hotel by Hilton and used the occasion to try to rally support for the second phase of his Buffalo Billion plan.

Just as concerning that Cuomo felt the need to campaign for the follow-up to his signature economic development program was the fact that there didn't appear to be a single state legislator from the region there with him. While the Legislature was in session on the other side of the state, their absence still reflected the strained relations between the governor and the legislators who must approve the $500 million Cuomo wants for his Buffalo Billion Squared program.

And later, in a meeting with Buffalo News reporters and editors, Cuomo said he thinks there's just a 50-50 chance that the Buffalo Billion, Part Two, gets approved.

If Cuomo is reading the tea leaves correctly, that's frightening, because the key to success for the Buffalo Billion doesn't just depend on the dozen or so major initiatives turning into successes. It depends on the region building on the momentum that grew out of what Cuomo likes to call the "shock and awe" of the first Buffalo Billion - and that means investing even more state money to build on the initiatives that were included in the first round.

In some ways, it's like a camp fire. To keep it going, you need to keep putting logs on the fire.

[Related: Local leaders praise $500 million plan to keep up Buffalo’s momentum]

So the Buffalo Billion Squared means another $25 million to restore more of the Niagara Gorge. It means funding for a visitor welcome center in Grand Island to help tourists learn about other local attractions and products. It means $35 million to expand the capacity and broaden the mission of the Buffalo Manufacturing Works innovation hub. It means another $10 million for workforce training in a region where more than 132,000 workers are considered to be underemployed. It means another $55 million for a smattering of projects along the Buffalo waterfront to build on the success of Canalside and the stunning revival of the area around it.

It was the steady stream of state investments over more than two decades that helped build Albany's computer chip hub. It wasn't a one-and-done.

And that's the fear Cuomo tried to convey Monday in the Buffalo Niagara region, where the governor is hoping to duplicate the successful Albany model.

With the local housing market strengthening, unemployment down around 5 percent and job growth estimated to be on the upswing – although still slower than the national average – there's no question that the Buffalo Niagara economy has improved.

With most of the key Buffalo Billion projects, like SolarCity and the Athenex drug development initiative, still in the early stages, it would be a mistake to credit the Buffalo Billion with the rebound. Much of the growth simply reflects an improving national economy and the renewed sense of optimism, though the Buffalo Billion has provided some stimulus.

"We did the hard part. The hard part was building the momentum. The hard part was getting people to believe once again that we’ve done," Cuomo said.

"You can feel the synergy in the region. Buffalo is doing well. Niagara Falls is doing well. They’re feeding off each other. The economic activity compounds itself one to the other. This budget, this plan, just takes it to the next step," Cuomo said.

"This $500 million is going to generate more hotels, more recreation, more jobs, more taxes, more revenue and continue the growth," he said. "We just have to get it done, and I need you to join with me in saying to those legislators in Albany, 'you pass this budget. It’s the right plan.'"

With relations between Cuomo and the Legislature frayed, Phase Two of the Buffalo Billion could be a tougher sell than the first round.

"If you're a downstate legislator, why would you support it? If you're a legislator from outside Buffalo, why would you support it?" Cuomo said.

"The only natural constituency is Buffalo," Cuomo said. But the governor called out the region's legislators for wanting to shift control of state economic development funding away from the regional economic development councils that Cuomo created and put the money back in the hands of the Senate and Assembly for them to dole out individually.

Cuomo was having none of that. "I will stop the money before allowing it to be distributed as member items because, in my opinion, it's a waste of money," he said.

Of course, there's a lot of horse-trading that will go on in Albany between now and the spring. It's possible that Cuomo will be able to cut a deal that includes the funding for Buffalo Billion Squared.

But if he can't, the governor didn't sound like he's in a forgiving mood, even if some of the legislative skepticism stems from the corruption charges that have been filed over an alleged pay-to-play scheme at key Buffalo Billion projects. Instead, Cuomo is taking aim at the Legislature.

"I promise you this, if they don't fund the Buffalo Billion Squared, I will spend half of my remaining life in Buffalo, talking to every one of their constituents, explaining how they did not fight for their constituents and residents," Cuomo said. "That I can promise you."

There are no comments - be the first to comment