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Finger Lakes REDC Plans for Economic Growth Under Governor's Agenda

Director of Upstate Economic Development Richard Tobe
John Hickey
Buffalo News
Director of Upstate Economic Development Richard Tobe

The Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council is wasting no time preparing for Governor Cuomo's Upstate Economic Revitalization Competition.

Members of the FLREDC, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, Mayor Lovely Warren, County Executive Maggie Brooks, and other officials held a public meeting to go over the details of the competition. Hochul began the presentations with an overview of the Governor's 2015 Opportunity Agenda, detailing his economic, education, and public safety proposals for the year.

Part of Cuomo's economic agenda is a $1.5 billion competition among Upstate New York regions. (New York City and Long Island are excluded.) In the end, three of the seven competing regions will be chosen as winners and awarded $500 million each.

Former Erie County Executive Richard Tobe was appointed Director of Upstate Economic Development by Governor Cuomo. Tobe will oversee the team that reviews applications and selects the winners. During the public meeting, he outlined some of the specifics of the competition, and ways that regions will be able to strengthen their applications.

Tobe says in order to win, regions have to think outside the box.

"The application will not be a list of $500 million of projects. Even if they were all ready to go - it wont be that. It's going to be arguments about why you're ready, and how you're going to be ready, and all the things you're going to do should you get the money."

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Tobe says there are several ways to go about making that argument. He says its critical to identify a region's strengths and develop a plan that plays to them and builds on them. Cuomo has pointed to Buffalo's solar industry and Albany becoming a nanotechnology hub.

Lt. Governor Hochul says that while she can't make assumptions about the potential success of any one area, the Finger Lakes region, and Rochester specifically, may find that the future of their economic development is inphotonics and optics research.

"I do know that there is a legacy, a strong history in photonics, in imaging, and perhaps sometimes if you build on the reputation that your economy grew on decades ago and find new ways to rethink that, that can be an asset."

Tobe says the Upstate Economic Development team is also looking for non-traditional indicators of a region's potential for economic growth.

"Part of the approach will be to be convincing numerically and statistically. And we're asking the regions to try to identify what you might think of as leading indicators that the region is ready to take a big step forward."

Tobe says rather than employment or unemployment numbers, regions should look at different social and economic trends as indicators. He gave examples of how Buffalo's economic climate was ready to improve, pointing to private sector donations to non-profits that signaled growing middle class wealth and rising confidence in the region, a migration of young people to Buffalo's downtown, and a burgeoning start up community. These phenomena contributed to the ultimate successes of the Buffalo Billion, says Tobe.

The Buffalo Billion has been a point of contention for some critics of the Upstate Economic Revitalization Fund. Now, regions are being asked to compete for a $500 million grant while Buffalo did not participate in the same kind of contest. Tobe says the circumstances are different, but since Governor Cuomo committed the money to their region Buffalo has had to operate in much the same way as this revitalization plan dictates. Projects are submitted, vetted, and essentially compete with one another.

"You'll have to show that your community is united, you'll have to show that you can move the needle significantly, that you'll be able to deal with people who are most needy, and those who are most able to move forward. We had to do all of that."

Tobe says they will be looking for innovative, but sustainable, private sector job growth.

He says there are plenty of projects that they're not looking to invest in, for example, the team is not looking for retail, health care, general education or infrastructure, or real estate initiatives, except in innovative proposals that produce jobs.

Regions will have the opportunity to work with private consultants in preparing their applications, at the region's own expense. FLREDC Co-chair Joel Seligman remarked that even though a private consultant would be on their dime, it might be worth it in the long run to increase their chances.

"Because we want to win and we want the best possible plan, it might be worth spending a dime -- but not a quarter."

The council also discussed the Rochester Anti-Poverty Task Force. Peter Carpino from the United Way addressed the council, and thanked officials for the opportunity to break Rochester's cycle of poverty.

"The Rochester region will eliminate childhood poverty by assuring that every child has the opportunity to achieve the American Dream."

Carpino and Mayor Warren both say this anti-poverty initiative is a logical extension of economic growth and job creation.

Warren stressed that this is not about handouts.

"I don't want the money to become more important than the mission."

The mission, Warren concluded, is lifting families out of poverty permanently.

Veronica Volk is a senior editor and producer for WXXI News.