In any community, many people may have a hand in improving its fortunes, but only a few ever make a difference that will resonate for generations. Howard Zemsky has done that three times, each more successful than the last: first with his gamble on inventing Larkinville, then as co-chair of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council and, for the past four years as chairman and CEO of Empire State Development Corp.
Outside of the governor he has worked for the past eight years, Western New York has rarely had such an effective champion.
But, all good things: Zemsky is stepping down as the state economic development agency’s chief executive officer. With that decision, he will give up the $1-a-year salary he commanded in exchange for the frequent barbs and criticism that accompanied the largely thankless work of improving the fortunes of his state and region.
Western New Yorkers can be grateful that he stayed as long as he did. Zemsky’s initial commitment to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was for two years. Instead, he remained for eight. And it’s not entirely over: Zemsky, a successful Buffalo developer in his own right, will continue to serve as ESD’s board chairman.
Here’s what has happened because of Zemsky’s selfless commitment to bolstering Western New York from positions of regional and statewide influence:
• With Zemsky’s leadership, and under Cuomo’s push to decentralize economic development planning, the area’s newly created regional council produced a development plan designed for Western New York. It focused not on splashy projects such as a corporate tower or big sporting goods store – both previously proposed for the area now known as Canalside – but on the region’s strengths: advanced manufacturing, tourism, life sciences.
• As head of ESD, he oversaw Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program, a focused and chancy bid to put the struggling Rust Belt city back on its feet. It’s success has been obvious, even if its signature project – the Tesla/Panasonic solar energy plan in South Buffalo – has yet to live up to its $750 million price tag. The move of the University and Buffalo’s medical school and the creation of a new children’s hospital and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus were also key achievements that, as much as anything, restored Buffalo’s shaken faith in itself.
• With Buffalo Billion II, which pumped another $500 million into the region, Zemsky refocused efforts on grass-roots projects including targeted infrastructure improvements on Buffalo’s East Side and a strategic land purchase in downtown Niagara Falls.
All of this came after Zemsky – as a private developer and at his own risk – poured money into an unlikely project in an all-but forgotten neighborhood just east of downtown. The result is today’s thriving district known as Larkinville. His vision, direction and chance-taking produced an area that has become a local destination and sparked further development.
He’s had other long-term influences on the region, and even those lesser ones – if you can call them that – have had a tremendous impact. He was president of the Richardson Center Corp., which oversaw the reclamation and reuse of the Richardson Towers, designed by famed American architect H.H. Richardson. It’s now the Richardson Olmsted Complex, site of a well regarded hotel and planned home of a center celebrating Buffalo’s architecture.
Similarly, he is a former president of the project to restore Buffalo’s Darwin Martin House, designed by an even more famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. That undertaking is expected to be completed this spring.
It’s a pattern. Like Larkinville, each project revived a latent city asset and made it a destination.
The problem now is what happens after Zemsky’s departure. As Dottie Gallagher, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, observed, the question causes nervousness.
It may be too much to hope for a successor at ESD as devoted to Western New York as Zemsky, but the good news is that he will continue to play an important role there.
The work isn’t done in Buffalo, but it has come a long way, in large part because Zemsky has donated his time and his sweat to the work. For that, he deserves the region’s hearty and profound thanks.