Start with a couple of salient facts:
1. The Buffalo Billion has, to date, produced fewer jobs than projected.
2. The party out of power in a democracy has an important duty to perform as the loyal opposition.
Nevertheless, we have a question for Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb and other critics of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s economic development initiative for Western New York: What would you have done?
The question arises from a useful report by PolitiFact New York, which examined Kolb’s complaint that the Buffalo Billion is “still breaking every job promise.” (It rated the claim as “half true.”) The Canandaigua Republican also lit into the governor for seeking now to reignite the economy of Utica, another broken upstate city.
Buffalo had withered on the New York vine for decades with no serious attention from Albany. Neither Democrats nor Republicans showed any interest in helping to revive the fortunes of New York’s second-largest city – or, for that matter, any other upstate city outside of Albany.
For decades, state officeholders focused their attention downstate, leaving upstate to twist in the wind that had blown its economy to pieces. That wind blew in from many directions, including state policies that helped to drive away jobs and population.
Cuomo took on the task and, it’s fair to say that while it hasn’t been wholly successful, Buffalo is in a far better place today than it would otherwise have been. Was that worth the money spent?
A better question is: What was the alternative? To leave Buffalo as it was, continually begging for advances on state aid payments, funded by taxpayers from around New York? To condemn the city to its decline and to accept that a permanent poverty rate of 30% or so was its fate? To insist that government had no legitimate role – and no ability to succeed – in resetting the economic trajectory of an important but underperforming city? Who else was going to do it?
Some critics would argue that the only answer is to change state policies, lower taxes and eliminate red tape. There’s some truth to that, but good luck: It hasn’t happened in decades and there’s no reason to think it will happen soon. In the meantime, Buffalo was foundering.
It’s true, as Kolb says, that the Buffalo Billion hasn’t met all of its promises. As the PolitiFact story concludes, some promises have been missed while others have changed. With some, their status is unclear. And some met their contractual requirements.
The big enchilada here, of course, is Tesla, the company occupying the space initially designated as the RiverBend project. The jury remains out there, although change may be afoot. The company announced last week that its solar shingles are ready for the market. CEO Elon Musk projected – perhaps optimistically – that the South Buffalo plant could soon be producing 1,000 solar roofs per week.
It’s always dicey for government to try to influence the economy, which is a complex set of daily decisions, themselves influenced by untold numbers of factors. But it’s also true that only the backing of government can make some things happen. With the Buffalo Billion, and now with his efforts on behalf of Utica, Cuomo brought the blunt force of state government to bear.
It may not – probably will not – pan out completely as hoped. That’s the nature of economic development. But the Buffalo Billion, together with other efforts, has changed the city’s direction and, just as important, its outlook. It may not be pretty, but we’ll take it.