Local health insurance executive Art Wingerter is branching out into economic development.
Wingerter, the president of Univera Healthcare, last month was named chairman of Invest Buffalo Niagara, the local economic development and marketing group.
Wingerter replaces Randall Clark, the local Dunn Tire executive who has been involved with Invest Buffalo Niagara since its founding, under the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise name, in 1999, including two terms as its chairman.
Wingerter discussed his views on Invest Buffalo Niagara and its direction in the coming years.
Q: What do you see as the role of Invest Buffalo Niagara in the region's economic development system?
A: People still are a little confused about Invest Buffalo Niagara and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. The Partnership has a different mission. They advocate for businesses that currently exist that are the voice for the business community. They work on legislative and business advancement initiatives – mandate relief, workers compensation reform, work force development.
Invest Buffalo Niagara is very different. They focus on the attraction and recruitment of business. They're out there nationally and globally, working with site selectors, making them aware of what we have to offer. It's not just Buffalo. They work with surrounding counties.
They're truly selling the region. If not for Invest Buffalo Niagara, no one is doing it. They build and develop those relationships with site selectors. That's where the businesses that relocate or start businesses or relocate their businesses come from. If you're not in that funnel, you're not seeing those opportunities. They become the point person. It's a very complex and competitive deal process
Q: Why do we need an agency like Invest Buffalo Niagara?
A: The state agencies create the incentives. Once a deal is identified, the state doesn't hold your hand and facilitate that process. It's really the team at Invest. They're the ones who research and articulate the incentives that any site might have attached to it. They work with state and local authorities and the developers to see if there are any shovel ready sites available. They basically hold their hands through the entire process to deliver what's promised.
The state doesn't have that team that does that. [Invest Buffalo Niagara President Thomas Kucharski] and his team work closely with the state and the industrial development agencies of the particular counties. But the IDAs don't have the resources to do the hand holding and the site facilitation and working with the utilities. It's so complex.
They're the ones who pull all those things together and work to see that the sites deliver what they need and they're promised.
Q: How successful has Invest Buffalo Niagara been, in your opinion?
A: Over time, there are ebbs and flows to this. Since 1999, there has been $6.2 billion in capital investment in the region. That's an average of $360 million a year, and thousands of jobs that have been created.
They're the ones who are behind the scenes, doing the grunt work to make these deals happen.
Q: There was a rivalry between the Partnership and Invest Buffalo Niagara in the early days. How's the relationship now?
A: Invest Buffalo Niagara and the Partnership work very closely together. They share office space. They share marketing staff and administrative staff. They share administrative expenses. They do all of the right things. It's very important that these two entities are somewhat joined at the hip.
These are mostly private dollars that support both of these organizations. I'm involved with both. The business community is getting the best value for our dollars.
Quite honestly, over time there's been some disagreements, but I think they're in a very good place right now with the state and local authorities to advance and bring jobs and create opportunity in Western New York.
I think Dottie [Gallagher-Cohen, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership president] and Tom have developed a very good working relationship.
Q: What are businesses looking for when they come to Invest Buffalo Niagara?
A: They've got their checklists. Are there sites available? That's first and foremost. Is it shovel ready? Is the proper power there? Is the power at a cost that's advantageous to their needs? Is it easy access? Is transportation good? Are there trucking routes or the train available. Everybody has different needs.
Workforce is a huge thing. That's something that Invest and the Partnership are working very closely on now. The Partnership just took on an initiative, Employ Buffalo Niagara, [to examine the region's workforce needs]. That's not in Invest's line of work, but a key component for Invest to be successful is making sure we have a proper work force to supply people for the companies looking to relocate here.
Q: Where do you see Invest Buffalo Niagara going in the next few years.
A: I'd like to see them continue on the path they're on in developing strong relationships with key partners in making Western New York a destination for businesses. That's working with the state and local and county agencies to make sure that the incentives and programs align.
It's very competitive out there. If Invest and the region are losing out on an employer coming to the region, it's likely because they received greater incentives from some other area.
Q: Invest Buffalo Niagara has focused on attracting companies from Canada. Will that continue to be an important market.
A: No doubt. They have strong ties and relationships, just as the Partnership is also developing business relationships. The Partnership just did an alliance with some of the Canadian chambers [in Niagara Falls and Hamilton, Ont.]. That will just strengthen the opportunities and the awareness for the region.
So if it's a choice of going to Detroit or Buffalo, what's the point of entry? Who is going to hold my hand through that process and not only make the most attractive deal, but who do I have confidence and trust in when I'm developing that and making the decision. It's the incentives, but it's just as much the trust in the facilitators that these guys can get it done. I think they've demonstrated over the years that they can deliver on their promises.