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Cuomo on the Buffalo Billion, Tesla – and a new stadium

It doesn’t take much prodding for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to emphasize the positive developments fostered around Buffalo by New York State.

He points to a bustling Canalside, the Tesla/Panasonic plant financed by the “shock and awe” of his Buffalo Billion economic development plan, and the Richardson Olmsted Campus on the city’s West Side – all jump-started by state investment.

And during a Wednesday visit to The Buffalo News, Cuomo said the newly adopted state budget will continue those efforts. But its $12.7 billion for projects around the region, he said, must now spur the private sector to match and surpass the state’s investment.

“The Buffalo Billion, in some ways, was a blunt instrument ... focused on getting the fundamental economy running,” he said. “It is successful. Now let’s be more sophisticated in our approach. Let’s be more nuanced. Let’s be more refined.”

Indeed, the governor said he expects the private sector to follow the state’s lead. He thinks private business will logically follow to continue investing at Canalside, Tesla/Panasonic and the Richardson complex that is now proposed for further expansion.

His economic development czar, Howard A. Zemsky, said new ideas beyond the Hotel Henry at the former psychiatric hospital will naturally follow the state’s $76.5 million investment – and they should emanate from the private sector.

“The idea is not to have the public sector perpetually carrying the burden of financing,” Zemsky said, prompting the governor to define his own vision for the state's economic development strategy.

“Government’s role is to provide the seed capital so the private market will say: ‘Oh, there’s an opportunity here,’ ” Cuomo said. “And the private sector is driving development in Buffalo.”

During a lengthy meeting with editors and reporters of The News, the governor also touched on a number of other subjects, including:

New Bills stadium

To renovate or build new for the Buffalo Bills is the big-money question looming over the football team and the region.

And Cuomo – who likely would have to be on board with providing the large amount of state money that would likely be part of any project – wasn't tipping his hand Wednesday on whether he prefers one option or the other.

"That's not a big thing. That's a ginormous thing," he said, noting that the state has supported previous renovations of New Era Field.

"The improvements in the stadium were a big deal," Cuomo said.  "We were very active in keeping the Bills here."

But as to whether he prefers the more costly option of building a stadium or the lower-priced alternative of renovating New Era Field, he wasn't saying.

Instead, Cuomo deferred to Zemsky, who said he would wait to see the results of the research now being done on the stadium issue for Bills owners Kim and Terry Pegula.

"What comes up in the future, we'll deal with it then," Cuomo said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, right, deferred to Howard Zemsky when asked about the future of the home of the Bills. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Tesla job promises

Cuomo would slap Tesla Inc. with a $41.2 million penalty if the company doesn't meet its job creation promises at its solar panel factory in Buffalo by next April.

But the governor said that he has seen no indication Tesla will miss its next benchmark.

"They're ahead of schedule," Cuomo said.

The electric vehicle maker is ahead of its job promises at the RiverBend factory, where the 700 current employees between Tesla and Panasonic top Tesla's commitment to employ 500 people by April 2019. The state spent $750 million to build and partially equip the factory.

But that job commitment jumps to 1,460 people by April 2020 – roughly double the factory's current workforce at a time when Tesla's solar energy business is shrinking and the solar roof product it is counting on as the Buffalo factory's main product isn't expected to reach full production until late this year.

"A contract is a contract," Cuomo said.

"The way we structured this transaction, it's not a goal, and it's nice if you make it. ... It's a benchmark. If you don't make it, you pay us back," Cuomo said. "Right now, they're ahead of their goal."

Vaccine exemptions

Cuomo said his office is researching the legality of legislation that would eliminate the religious exemption that allows people to opt out of vaccinations for measles and other diseases.

In the wake of an outbreak of measles in the lower Hudson Valley and New York City, state legislators have filed a bill that would repeal the exemption for vaccinations due to religious beliefs.  The vaccinations for several diseases, including measles, are required for children to enter school. According to Rockland County, 82 percent of the 173 confirmed cases of measles there have occurred in people who have not been vaccinated.

"It's going to be a legal question, it's going to be a constitutional question. It's going to be freedom of religion, it's going to be First Amendment," Cuomo said. "We're looking at it now, but it's going to be a pure legal question."

He said if legislation is passed and he signs it, he would have to believe that it is constitutional and that the state can defend any challenges in court.

"It's less of a public health question to me, it's more of a legal, constitutional question," he said.

News reporter Barbara O'Brien also contributed to this report.

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