Howard Zemsky is stepping away from one of the most thankless jobs in New York — the $1 a year post as the state's economic development czar.
But his legacy in shaping how the Buffalo Niagara region approaches economic development will live on for many years.
Zemsky, the Buffalo businessman who has run Empire State Development Corp. since 2015, confirmed Thursday he will step down as CEO of the state agency, but will remain chairman of its board of directors.
Zemsky has been the driving force behind the plan that has shaped development policies in Western New York for most of this decade. And there's no sign that anyone will be veering off the roadmap that Zemsky helped create anytime soon.
The fact that we even have a plan is one of Zemsky's biggest accomplishments in and of itself, after decades of politicians and well-intentioned business people chasing random silver bullets, from Bass Pro to a Niagara Falls mega-mall, without ever really looking at the big picture.
Zemsky did — empowered by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, first as the co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, and then as head of Empire State Development. Cuomo's idea was to decentralize economic development, challenging local leaders to figure out what they should be doing and what they needed to get it done.
To be sure, what resulted in Western New York wasn't Zemsky's plan. He had a lot of help from the development council and the hundreds of local experts it enlisted. It was a regional collaboration unlike anything we'd seen here in a long time. But Zemsky's unassuming ways — his deadpan delivery always reminds me of the comedian Steven Wright — were essential in pulling it together. Even more remarkable, the buy-in to that plan continues today.
"He has had tremendous impact on policy development, but also the implementation of how policy is done — the decentralization of economic development to some degree," said Dottie Gallagher, the president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.
With his departure, the Buffalo Niagara region loses its one of its biggest allies in Albany: a local developer who took a huge chance and turned a derelict factory into what now is the thriving Larkinville neighborhood, someone who understood that economic development isn't about silver bullets, like the Tesla solar panel factory and its $750 million price tag.
"Having someone in that position — not only from Western New York but a business person who knows how to get things done — was invaluable," Gallagher said Thursday evening. "
"If I'm being honest, I'm nervous about who comes next," she said.
And for good reason. Zemsky's efforts — with Cuomo using his office and his control of state funds as a bully pulpit to quash dissent — gave the Buffalo Niagara region its first cohesive economic development plan in decades.
That plan is about knowing what kind of resources a region has, and what kind of talent and skills the people who live there have, and then crafting a strategy that plays off those strengths.
It's about building neighborhoods where people want to be. Where young people can find the entertainment and quality jobs that make them want to stay in their hometown.
That meant focusing on areas where council members believed the region had a competitive advantage, like advanced manufacturing and tourism. The plan 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 ongoing 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," Zemsky said two years ago.
That was a sea change for the Buffalo Niagara region.
Before there was a plan, 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 — a statistic Cuomo cited during a stop in Buffalo last month.
All those new roads and sewers and street lights cost a bundle to build, and 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 — creating big problems that still exist today for city residents who had no way to reach the jobs that had moved to the outskirts.
"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."
To be sure, there were exceptions to that strategy, some of them championed by Zemsky's former rival, the convicted former SUNY Polytechnic Institute President Alain Kaloyeros, who helped spearhead the first wave of development under the state's Buffalo Billion economic development program. Tesla is the biggest example, with $750 million going to lure a solar energy company to a region that had no expertise in solar energy.
The Buffalo Billion II, the sequel to the splash and dash of the original Buffalo Billion, had Zemsky's fingerprints all over it. The second phase has more of a focus on community and neighborhood development, without the mega-projects from Round One. It went back to the plan.
“Leading Empire State Development and serving as Gov. Cuomo's head of economic development has been the honor of a lifetime," Zemsky said in a statement Thursday night.
A spokesman for the Cuomo administration said it would work to recruit someone to run the day-to-day operations of Empire State Development.
"Howard's original commitment to us was for two years; he's served this administration and the people of this great state for eight — with no compensation mind you — and New York is the better for it," said Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi. "We are thrilled and honored that he will continue his public service and remain a beloved part of the team."
Zemsky may be stepping down. But the plan he helped create endures.