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David Robinson: For Cuomo, it's stick to the plan – or else

There's one thing that really stands out during the Buffalo Billion era beyond the money.

It's the extraordinary lack of dissent over an economic development plan that has shaped almost every major economic decision in the Buffalo Niagara region over the past six years.

We have a plan.

We've been sticking to it.

And we haven't been bickering about it.

Think about how unusual that is. For the better part of four decades, we chased silver bullet solutions, from the Ghermezian Brothers' mega-mall in Niagara Falls, to its similarly misguided cousin, Benderson Development's Niagara Falls factory outlet mega-mall, and the most silvery bullet of them all, a Bass Pro at what is now Canalside.

It was a parochial approach, guided by individual interests first and foremost. It was a "What's in it for me?" approach that put the community's interests second, at best.

It also was an abject failure.

We were spinning our wheels while our economy was falling farther and farther behind the rest of the country, even during prolonged periods of national prosperity throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s. Our young people were leaving because they could find jobs in other places, but not in their hometown. We were a mess. We knew we were a mess. But we didn't know how to help ourselves.

That changed when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo took office and formed 10 regional economic development councils, each charged with coming up with a viable economic development strategy.

In Western New York, the strategy focused on areas where council members believed the region had a competitive advantage, like advanced manufacturing and tourism. It identified weaknesses within the region, such as a dearth of entrepreneurs and new business start-ups, despite the wealth of research done at the region's colleges and universities. And it warned of problems that would be coming in the  years ahead, such as the need for improved worker training initiatives to meet the upcoming wave of retirements among factory workers.

"We focus on advanced manufacturing. We focus on life sciences. We focus on tourism. We focus on workforce development. We focus on downtown revitalization. We focus on innovation,"  said Howard Zemsky, the Buffalo developer who was instrumental in developing the strategic plan as co-chairman of the local development council and now is the CEO of Empire State Development.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Empire State Development CEO Howard Zemsky speak to reporters in September. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News file photo)

"Before he took office, economic development was nothing more than a random walk, just a random toss at the dart board. No strategy, really. No goals," Zemsky said. "It was like throwing darts at a dart board. We always managed to just point fingers and not get things done."

The result was a lot of sprawl, as new development pushed out into the fields and woods of the outermost suburbs at a time when people were moving away. The region built 500 new miles of roads during a 20-year period.

"They're called cul-de-sacs," Zemsky said.

Not only were all those new roads and sewers and street lights expensive to put in, they drove up other costs. Police now had more area to patrol. There were more miles of road to plow. If you didn't have a car, you couldn't get there.

"We sprawled like crazy, to our detriment. We took fewer and fewer people and spread them out over 2 1/2 times the land mass," Zemsky said. "We hollowed out the city and we created a place where my kids - and maybe your kids - didn't really want to be."

That's where the development council's plan came into play. Cuomo demanded that each council develop a viable strategy, based on an analysis of each region's strengths and weaknesses. The councils brought in hundreds of participants to hammer out sections of the plan.

Hovering over it all was Cuomo, who set up a regional council awards contest to reward the regions with best plans with the most funding. As the years have passed, he's shown little tolerance for deviating from the plan. While there has been some sputtering over minority hiring rates and a lack of oversight from the state Legislature, he's largely used his office and his control of state funds as a bully pulpit.

Take the ongoing debate over the location of a new train station, either at the old Central Terminal or near the existing station downtown. The Buffalo Billion II includes partial funding - $25 million - for a new downtown train station, but there's a split within the community on where the station will be built. The results of a study are due April 26, and Cuomo made it clear this week that he expects a decision then, too. Otherwise, he warned, the state won't pay for the $1 million study.

Downtown Buffalo’s current train station. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

When you're dangling millions of dollars, it's easier to get people to stick to the plan if you're willing, as Cuomo has been, to use the funding as a hammer.

Cuomo has adapted, too. The first phase of the Buffalo Billion was focused more on big projects, like the SolarCity solar panel factory at the old Republic Steel site in South Buffalo, that promised lots of jobs and also were aimed at changing the atmosphere of negativity and cynicism that stemmed from our economic decline and constant bickering. The second phase has more of a focus on community and neighborhood development, and building on the big initiatives from Round One.

"There are different economic development strategies. You have the big projects - the Big Bang Theory. And you have the in-fill theory," Cuomo said this week.

"There's no doubt that Phase 1 was geared toward credibility and belief, because if the community doesn't believe, then nothing happens. And big projects with big resonance tend to generate more energy and optimism. The Republic Steel rebirth. Wow! That's the metaphor that says it all. It's an economic Lazarus," Cuomo said. "Phase Two is more in-fill and granular ... I think there's more nuance to the second phase."

The plan evolves. But it stays in place.

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