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By Matt Glynn

July 27, 2011

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Tuesday that it was time for regions such as Western New York to overcome internal rivalries and "parochialism" and come up with a unified economic-development plan as they compete for $1 billion in state funding.

He also touted the state's new regional economic-development councils as a break with the "one-size-fits-all" approach of the past, allowing each region to capitalize on its unique strengths to foster growth.

Speaking at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Cuomo called for leaders to stop confining themselves to city and county borders when it comes to economic growth.

"There is no economic future just for Jamestown, discrete from Buffalo, discrete from Erie [County]," he said. "It's not going to work that way. I know there are lines on a map, but the lines mean nothing when it comes to economic reality. And you have to get out of that thinking, and you have to get past that box."

The Western New York council consists of 28 people, including two co-chairmen, 18 general members and eight elected officials. Its regional co-chairmen are Howard A. Zemsky, managing partner at Larkin Development Co., and Satish K. Tripathi, president of the University at Buffalo. Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy will serve as chairman of each of the 10 councils.

A statewide conference will be held in September in Albany to "energize" the process, Duffy said. The 10 councils will submit their plans in November, and the state will make funding announcements in December. The councils' recommendations for job creation will not necessarily guarantee that the projects will receive funding.

"If you come up with that plan, and you come up with that vision, the state's going to be right there as a partner to help you fund that vision," Cuomo said. "And the energy is there, and the willingness is there."

The $1 billion pledged for economic development in the 2011-12 state budget includes about $200 million for which the 10 councils will compete. The plans ranked as the top four will each get $40 million of that $200 million; the other six will split up the remaining $40 million. No region risks being shut out.

In addition, the councils can also apply for about $800 million from state agencies for everything from road construction funding to energy-efficiency grants.

The Western New York council faces the challenge of rallying its large membership around a plan in the quest for economic-development dollars.

The state and the region have seen economic-development strategies come and go over the years, including M&T Bank Corp. Chairman and CEO Robert G. Wilmers' one-year stint as chairman of the Empire State Development Corp. And near the end of Gov. David A. Paterson's administration in late 2010, he commented on the petty fights and "lack of cooperation" he saw among leaders in Western New York.

Cuomo said his administration, working with the State Legislature, was determined to first remake the state's image through steps such as a property tax cap before fleshing out its economic-development strategy.

"We're not the anti-business state," he said. "We're not the tax-and-spend state."

Alfred D. Culliton, CEO of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, said the regional approach was "long overdue."

As for the funds dangled for economic development, Culliton said: "This is enough to get the engine primed. If we really start running well as a state economy, people will come here, and money will come here."

"We have instead kind of sent people elsewhere because there haven't been attractive alternatives," he said, pointing out issues such as high taxes. "... So this hopefully is a big step in making this state run, and it will draw money from elsewhere."

Allison K. Duwe, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice, said of Cuomo's plan: "It's really great to see a more coordinated and regionally focused approach to economic development, and I'm really heartened to hear the governor acknowledge that our approach to economic development in the past has been flawed."

Duwe said, however, that she wasn't sure whether the new councils were prepared to tackle issues such as billions of dollars in tax breaks given to businesses.

"What I think is exciting here is the notion of potentially really taking government resources and investing in long-term plans and people and public infrastructure and community-led projects," Duwe said.

"The fear is that although the governor keeps touting a $1 billion figure, mostly what we're talking about here in terms of new money is about $200 million, not a billion."

Mayor Byron W. Brown said Buffalo is "well-positioned" to help the region secure funds, with its various development projects under way. "I think that this is a unique approach," he said, "... that can be very successful."

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said the region should not be afraid of the competitive format for funds, and instead showcase its strengths. "I think the opportunity to plead our case is an opportunity that is welcome," he said.

Dyster cheered Cuomo's call to break down local political barriers, adding that the region should assemble a plan that leads the state out of its economic doldrums.

Zemsky said he sees businesses operating in Western New York as the "real foot soldiers" of economic development in the region as they compete, produce and invest.

"The question, to some extent, is: What is the best way for the public to invest to enhance the business climate, to strengthen some of our indigenous assets that we have in this region?" Zemsky said. "Let's make sure we have consensus on what some of those indigenous assets, what our strategic strengths are."

The new Western New York council includes some political donors to Cuomo's campaign.

Zemsky gave the Cuomo campaign $12,500 last September, which does not include thousands of other dollars the businessman has spread to various Democratic and Republican interests in the last couple of years. John R. Koelmel, president and CEO of First Niagara Financial Group, and his bank donated $3,000 to Cuomo in 2009.

And Paul Brown, president of the Buffalo Building and Construction Trades Council, leads a labor organization that, along with other building trades labor groups in New York State, was a reliable supporter of Cuomo's 2010 campaign.

A Geneva-based building trades political action committee, whose donors include construction workers unions from the Buffalo area, gave $10,000 to Cuomo's gubernatorial campaign last July.

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