It’s fairly certain that the more than 100 participants in the recent Buffalo Niagara Partnership forum left with one clear conclusion about this year’s candidates for Erie County executive: Mark C. Poloncarz and Lynne M. Dixon approach business and economic development very differently.
And the participants were probably also convinced the pair will follow divergent paths, depending on which one occupies the big office atop the Rath County Office Building come Jan. 1.
Democratic incumbent Poloncarz wasted no time lauding Buffalo’s “renaissance,” the creation of 39,000 jobs in Western New York, the county’s investment in the Bethlehem Steel site, the arrival of 40 new Canadian companies with more than 1,000 jobs, and unemployment's sinking to 4.3%.
“What will people think in 20 years about what we are doing now?” he asked the group. “I want to make sure this renaissance continues. I was getting pretty sick of hearing how great our region was in the 1950s and ‘60s.”
Dixon, an Independence/Republican county legislator from Hamburg, thinks the area can fare even better with a little more of a business-friendly county government. And though downtown Buffalo has rebounded and more people are working, Dixon says any area “renaissance” compares poorly to what is happening in the rest of the country.
“We are not business friendly and that’s our biggest problem,” she said.
The business community has mixed feelings about the Poloncarz record. Partnership President Dottie Gallagher acknowledges the thousands of new jobs in Erie County created under the incumbent, but she laments the lack of a close relationship with him.
The area’s main business association takes issue with the county executive’s tough enforcement of Erie County Industrial Development Agency rules and with his social policy efforts such as pay equity for men and women. Gallagher says she and Poloncarz try to work through their disagreements, even slating monthly lunches to open communication.
But the situation, she said, is not a “natural.”
“Usually these candidates have collections of people around them, but he’s not close to anybody in the private sector that we can find,” Gallagher said. “It’s a good thing when they are properly informed. It’s a bad thing when they come to conclusions and are not informed. It’s frustrating.”
ECIDA policies, she said, present the most challenges for the business community’s relationship with the county. Poloncarz, she said, has become the “enforcer” on regulations like the “clawback” rule, which allows the agency to recoup grants and incentives from companies failing to honor employment promises.
“The law is written to punish bad actors, which we support 100%,” Gallagher said. But she insists that no hard and fast rules should apply. That includes when opposing a Poloncarz clawback, noting the Partnership has often voted for clawbacks when appropriate.
“Every time there are examples of bad actors, we have voted for the clawbacks,” she said. “But we say that if a company has good intentions, we ought to give them time and invest in them until they get back on their feet. The IDA has prevented some clawbacks by understanding the full picture of what’s going on."
“I just think we’ve been too aggressive with clawbacks,” she added. “We find 10 ways to say no before we say yes.”
Poloncarz told the Partnership forum that before he joined the IDA board, the agency had to write off many loans. That has changed, he said.
“We don’t demand a share of the profits,” he added. "We just want you to guarantee what we get is the jobs you create.”
Dixon counters that the agency has “become a regulatory arm.”
“I don’t think that’s helpful,” she said.
In addition, Dixon said, the state’s $750 million investment in Buffalo’s Tesla/Panasonic plant exemplifies government picking “winners and losers sometimes based on a political agenda.”
Gallagher emphasizes that the Partnership has no favorite on Election Day and offers only that she would expect a County Executive Dixon to maintain a different relationship with the business community.
“Her feelings are much more aligned with more traditional economic development,” she said.
But Richard Lipsitz, president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation and IDA vice chairman, points to his group’s “early and enthusiastic” endorsement of Poloncarz. To working men and women, he said, the county executive’s clampdown via clawbacks makes the IDA “more transparent and more responsible.” He also lauds the requirement for male-female pay equity in return for IDA incentives.
“If companies want incentives, they have to make sure men and women are paid equally for the same work,” Lipsitz said, noting passage of the new policy came “over the serious objections of some sectors of the business community.”
“There was a lot of pushback, but I’m glad we did it,” he added.
That opposition can only be viewed as over-reaction to Poloncarz, whom he called “maybe the most important voice” of the IDA.
“I also see a very lively local economy where all kinds of buildings have been rehabilitated and put back on the tax rolls,” Lipsitz said.
The two candidates used the forum to offer opinions on a variety of economic development topics, including:
The local business climate
Poloncarz: He points to county investments in the Bethlehem and Lakeside industrial parks and “shovel-ready” facilities for relocating companies.
“No private sector entity is going to do Bethlehem Steel,” he said. “It took a lot of effort, but we continue to invest in that site.”
Poloncarz then rattled off a list of companies looking to set up shop at Bethlehem, made possible by county and IDA incentives.
“We have done a tremendous amount of work over the last eight years to grow this economy,” he said.
Dixon: While Poloncarz says a higher tax levy (the total collected by the county) is “not necessarily a bad thing” because it reflects growth, the challenger said the 24% hike during his tenure is too much.
State mandates enacted by the incumbent’s Democratic colleagues in Albany continue to pose challenges for business, which could find more friendly governments in southern states, she said. New early voting plans will cost the county $3 million (some is reimbursed), she said, while bail reform passed this year by the new all-Democratic Legislature will cost $100 million for counties across New York.
“These are issues coming before the county as a result of state action,” she said. “In terms of the business community, that’s not a good thing.”
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Tourism and the county bed tax
Poloncarz: He continues to spar with the Partnership over his allocation of 31% of the bed tax to the Visit Buffalo Niagara convention and visitors bureau, as opposed to 50% in previous administrations. Business leaders also oppose his use of bed tax funds to support cultural institutions.
But the county executive noted his 2020 budget expects $11.6 million from the hotel bed tax, with $3.6 million for Visit Buffalo Niagara and $6.6 million to support culturals.
“We actually spend the whole hotel bed tax for tourism-related entities. We have an obligation to underwrite the convention center costs and the culturals,” he said, noting culturals also attract tourist dollars. He said that allocating more money for the convention and visitors bureau for those programs would cause cuts somewhere else or a hike in taxes – which he rejects.
Dixon: She believes increasing the bed tax will provide a healthy return on the investment.
“With an increase, we can do a better push to sell this region” to tourists as well as young expatriates, she said.
Dixon also thinks tourism officials should work more aggressively with the Buffalo Niagara International Airport to attract more flights.
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Future of the Convention Center
Poloncarz: He offers no specifics, pending the outcome of a county study, but calls the current facility “too small and too old.”
“It’s 2019 and we have a convention center from 1980,” he said. “We need to stay in the convention and visitor business.”
The state will help, he believes, after financing new convention centers in Rochester and Albany and expanding the Javits Center in New York City. “But we can’t go hat in hand until we know where to put it and how much it will cost,” he said.
Dixon: "We have a lot of architectural gems in Western New York," she said. "The convention center is not one of them."
She raises questions about Buffalo's ability to compete with other cities that offer more airline access and better winter weather.
"You have to ask, that if we are to spend half a billion dollars, are we going to get a return," she said. "I personally don't believe we will.
"But I voted for the study." she said, noting she is willing to analyze the options.
• • •
New Buffalo Bills stadium
Poloncarz: With the Bills' lease expiring in 2023, he notes the next county executive must address whether New Era Field can continue hosting the team or a new stadium should be built.
The county executive has often expressed a preference for continuing in Orchard Park in some form, but he is not saying much else, except for the need to study, to include the team’s owners, and that nobody should expect a return on the hundreds of millions that will be needed.
“It’s important to have the right person in there" to negotiate, he said.
Dixon: “We’ve been talking about a lot of big-ticket items – a stadium, the Skyway, a convention center, extending Metro Rail – and we can’t afford to do all those things,” she said.
She commits to no specifics but asks questions about a stadium used for eight or 10 games a year and whether her children and grandchildren should be paying for it 20 years from now.
“One building will not change a city,” she said. “A lot of pieces of the puzzle will do that. And taxpayers have to be the biggest part of the equation.”
Story topics: Elections 2019