Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s promised “Buffalo Billion” economic-development program, outlined during his visit here Tuesday, doesn’t contain any quick fixes.
Instead, the plan takes a patient approach that 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 to tourism.
“Those are the three sectors that have been identified as having the greatest potential to create jobs and spur wealth creation,” said Howard A. Zemsky, co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, which drafted the plan over the last year.
Part of the life sciences plan revolves around an Albany company, Albany Molecular Research, which is getting $50 million in state money to open a $250 million drug research, development and testing center on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. The center, which is expected to employ 250 people, would receive $35 million for new equipment and $15 million to improve existing lab space.
Other parts of the plan are likely to take years to fully develop. “Our plan for the $1 billion focuses on the long term and sustainability,” Zemsky said. “There are no silver bullets; we’ve learned that.”
The plan also seeks to take advantage of what council officials believe are some of the region’s competitive advantages over other parts of the United States – and other countries – to develop a concentration of expertise that could turn Western New York into a magnet for firms in those targeted sectors.
“We need to jump-start the Western New York economy because it has been a long time coming,” said Cuomo, who did not back away from the $1 billion commitment, despite the increased financial strain on state funds because of the damage from Superstorm Sandy.
“It’s a lot of money in this environment because there is no money in this environment,” he said.
The regional plan, which does not yet include specific funding allocations, is centered on several initiatives that council officials hope will help lay the groundwork for future growth, including:
• For manufacturers, it means focusing on more sophisticated factories that rely on skilled workers, trained through local workforce-development programs, to make products for industries that also can tap into the expertise at local universities.
The plan looks to build on the region’s strength in ceramics manufacturing, while also capitalizing on local expertise in chemicals, along with university-based research on clay, rubber and plastics.
• In health and life sciences, it looks to build on plans for a new children’s hospital and the medical research now being done at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, along with the planned move of the University at Buffalo Medical School to the Medical Campus. It means stepping up efforts to turn the $350 million in science-related academic research that is done in the region into thriving, well-funded businesses that can create good-paying jobs.
“This is health care on steroids,” said John R. Koelmel, president and CEO of First Niagara Bank and a member of the development council. “It’s really good business.”
• In tourism, it means finding ways to persuade the 8 million people who visit Niagara Falls each year to stay for more than a few hours. A bigger marketing budget, which at $4.25 million is less than half what Cincinnati spends on tourism and just a third of what Pittsburgh spends, is one part of the plan, as is a study to find out why tourists come to the Falls and why they don’t stay longer.
In addition, the plan envisions improvements for the downtrodden area within three blocks of the falls and is expected to include a contest to seek ideas for a project located on a key parcel of land near the state park, Mayor Paul A. Dyster said.
• There also would be a contest aimed at budding entrepreneurs to compete for up to $500,000 to help turn their ideas into a business. It would help address one of the region’s nagging problems: Despite the high level of research conducted here, the region attracts very little venture capital, frequently forcing entrepreneurs to locate elsewhere to find the funding and the support they need.
“We have a lot of risk capital investors who get on a plane to do their jobs,” said Teo Ballbach, a principal at Mercury Capital Partners, a Buffalo venture capital firm that specializes in media investments. “We have a lot of entrepreneurs who get on a plane to raise capital.”
• The plan also includes a Better Buffalo Fund that would help finance economic- and community-development initiatives within the city, from improvements along the Fruit Belt-Michigan Avenue corridor to investments around the Central Park neighborhood, while also aiding initiatives in housing and transportation improvements.