If one word underscored Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s approach to a host of hot Western New York topics during his Thursday visit to Buffalo, it would probably be “flexible.”
During his ninth regional budget-booster session in the last seven business days – this one at City Honors School – Cuomo said the state will consider any time frame that local leaders desire in distributing his “Billion for Buffalo” economic development package.
He also said “everything is still on the table” regarding administration hints about a second gambling casino for Niagara Falls.
And he said that “tweaking” his controversial new gun-control law remains a possibility.
But his assertion that the $1 billion earmarked for economic development in Buffalo could be applied over a desired local timetable – and not as long as 10 years as he outlined in his budget presentation – seemed to answer the most pressing local concern.
It stems from Cuomo’s original 2012 promise to spend $1 billion on incentives to revitalize Buffalo, with the money to be delivered over five years.
In this year’s State of the State address in Albany and in his Thursday speech at City Honors, Cuomo said the $1 billion would be spent over 10 years.
Answering questions from reporters at City Honors, he said the money will be delivered in five, seven or 10 years – “whatever works for Buffalo.”
“We have a fund to invest in Buffalo up to about a billion dollars in whatever plan Buffalo develops,” he said. “It’s not for us in Albany to sit there and say this is the business you should be in, and you should be attracting these businesses and run it this way.”
“If they want to do it over five years, we will do it over five years. If they come up with a configuration over 10 years, we will do it over 10 years,” he added. “If they want to do it over seven years, we will do it over seven years.”
The governor added the payment timetable must be “within reason.”
“If they said, ‘We want all $1 billion within six months,’ that would be a problem,” he said. “As long as it is over time, some period of time, we will make sure it works for Buffalo in whatever business configurations they construct.”
Cuomo has turned to the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council to devise a plan to capitalize on the $1 billion pledge. The council’s general strategy is to pour the money into a base of facilities and programs that make the region more attractive to emerging industries – life sciences, for example. The council wants to help local industries expand, encourage innovative startups, promote tourism and help bring developments in health care to market.
While Cuomo talked Thursday of spreading out the money over a locally determined timetable, his state Budget Division seems to be assuming a 10-year schedule. Cuomo’s state budgets have made $100 million available in each of the last two fiscal years. So far, the WNY Regional Economic Development council has grabbed $50 million of it to move a division of Albany Molecular Research Inc. to Buffalo in the hope it will attract other medical technology companies.
Howard A. Zemsky, the Buffalo-area developer and co-chairman of the council, said he’s comfortable with Cuomo’s answer that the billion dollars can be rolled out as needed.
“They just don’t want to put a clock on us,” he said, adding he also has no firm time frame in mind.
“I would be surprised if we could put all that money to use in the first five years, and I would be surprised if it took us more than eight years,” he said. “I feel like as opportunities present themselves, we will realize those opportunities.”
“I don’t think we will have amazing opportunities where we will have to say to someone ... ‘Oh we can do it in two years but not this year,’ ” he added. “I just don’t feel like we are going to find ourselves in that circumstance.”
Cuomo addressed reporters’ questions following an approximately 45-minute presentation before about 1,200 people in a packed City Honors auditorium. After emphasizing the highlights of his $130 billion spending plan, he also responded to questions about the lack of provisions for a second casino in Niagara Falls – an idea floated in recent weeks by administration officials – in the latest budget amendments filed in Albany.
The governor noted, however, that nothing should be read into that.
“No, no, no – everything is still on the table,” he said. “We’re talking to the Legislature about it. We’re going back and forth with the Legislature; they obviously have their own ideas. So it is developing. But nothing is off the table.”
The Buffalo News reported last month that the administration would propose a new, non-Indian casino for Niagara Falls in the midst of its long-standing financial dispute with the Seneca Nation of Indians. The move set in motion either an effort to jump-start stalled talks over the more than $500 million in lapsed casino revenue-sharing payments from the Senecas throughout the state or an attempt to bring direct, non-Indian competition to the Senecas’ exclusive gambling empire in Western New York.
The governor, in his Thursday presentation, reiterated his aim to add three non-Indian casinos to upstate but did not mention a fourth, which would be the second for Niagara Falls.
He also reinforced his view of the dispute between the Senecas and the cities of Niagara Falls, Salamanca and Buffalo over the tribe’s withholding of casino payments to the state. The Senecas contend the state has violated its casino agreement for Seneca exclusivity in Western New York in return for the payments to the state by establishing “racinos” at several racetracks in the area. His carefully worded discussion of the situation reflects the arbitration under way that will decide the dispute, and the gag order issued by the hearing officer, former Court of Appeals Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye.
“What we have said is that in parts of the state where we have contractual agreements in good standing, we will honor those agreements, primarily with the Indian-run casinos,” he said. “But the agreements have to be in good standing. The agreements have to honored by both parties.”
“I don’t want to be in a position where the state is honoring an agreement that is not honored by the other party,” he added. “And that we will play out over the next few weeks.”