It has been a little more than a year since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pledged $1 billion to bolster the Buffalo Niagara economy, but local development officials say it will be several years before the “Buffalo Billion” starts paying off with a hoped-for flood of new jobs and investment.
While state and local officials said Thursday they are confident that the plan developed for the Buffalo Billion eventually will lead to thousands of new jobs and billions in new investment for the region, it won’t be a quick fix for the local economy.
“These things take time. They take investments,” said Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, who was in Amherst on Thursday for a meeting of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, which is spearheading the plan for capitalizing on the state’s $1 billion pledge. “The seeds that are planted today are going to grow,” Duffy said. “We want a long-term return. This is not going to turn around overnight.”
Indeed, it may not be until 2015 – or maybe even later – before the initiatives start injecting new vigor into an economy that has seen little growth over the past decade.
“Over the next three, four or five years, we should see movement in the trajectory,” said Christina Orsi, the regional director for Empire State Development in Buffalo. The makeup of the $1 billion – how much will be cash, or tax breaks or low-cost power – has remained vague.
The plan for the Buffalo Billion, developed by the council over the past year with help from consultants at the Brookings Institution and McKinsey & Co., focuses on building support centers for local businesses and funding programs that will help the Buffalo Niagara region become a bigger player in targeted industries, from advanced manufacturing to health and life sciences and tourism.
It also puts an emphasis on developing a skilled local workforce with abilities matching the needs of the region’s employers, as well as encouraging start-up businesses and revitalizing downtrodden neighborhoods and communities. Rather than focusing on individual projects, the plan mainly concentrates on building a base of facilities and programs that will help create an economic environment attractive to private investors in those targeted industries.
While council officials laid out the basics for their strategy behind the Buffalo Billion two months ago, and released a more extensive version of their plan Thursday, the details of the funding behind the initiative remain vague. The state has allocated $200 million for the initiative so far, but the only project that has been designated to receive funds from it is a $50 million incentive for Albany Molecular Research to open a $250 million drug research, development and testing center on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz noted that the plan behind the Buffalo Billion does not emphasize investments in individual companies, and he pointed out that the Albany Molecular project accounts for a quarter of the funding that has been released for the initiative so far.
“Twenty-five percent of the money that’s been allocated is going to one project, but it’s not part of the strategy,” Poloncarz said.
Howard Zemsky, the local developer who serves as co-chairman of the development council, said the Albany Molecular project fits within the strategy because it is aimed at spurring the development of the life sciences industry – one of the sectors targeted for growth under the council’s plan.
“It’s consistent with it, but that one company is not embodied in the plan,” he said. “We have to seed the medical campus with private-sector jobs.”
Poloncarz, in response, called on the council to disclose more details on how the Buffalo Billion will be disbursed among the targeted sectors, from advanced manufacturing to tourism and life sciences.
Zemsky said Buffalo Niagara’s economic woes – ranging from a dwindling number of local jobs to high unemployment and wages that are only keeping pace with inflation – didn’t develop overnight, and it’s not fair to expect those problems to be resolved quickly, either.
“If you want to transform that picture, you need a thoughtful approach that takes advantage of our strengths and recognizes our weaknesses,” Zemsky said.
Zemsky said he believes the strategy behind the Buffalo Billion is sound, based on research that identified segments of the economy where the region has a competitive advantage over other parts of the nation and the world. But for it to work, it also will take patience. “It takes some time and some commitment, and it takes some sticking with it.”
“We’re not encouraging willy-nilly, random investments in areas that are not our strength,” he said. “I look at this as an economic lifeline for Western New York. If we just throw stuff at it, if we don’t come up with a proper plan, we will have squandered the greatest economic opportunity for the region since the Erie Canal.”
While Cuomo, in his State of the State address last month, referred to the Buffalo Billion as a 10-year project, Duffy said the timeline for the initiative, originally targeted as a five-year plan, has not changed. Duffy said the 10-year reference was made because some of the projects that are part of the Buffalo Billion may not be completed until a decade from now.
“He mentioned that to make sure he didn’t cut short the time frame needed to complete any of these projects,” Duffy said.
Because of the plan’s long-term nature, Buffalo Urban League President Brenda McDuffie said residents may become skeptical of the Buffalo Billion initiative.
She urged the council to make it easy for the public to track the progress of the projects that are part of the initiative. People need to see things,” she said. “Until they see it in action, they don’t believe it’s real.”