New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY -- The state's 10 regional economic development councils offered a progress report on their work Tuesday, saying the collaborative effort has boosted their focus on job creation.
The regional councils, created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as his top jobs initiative, shared $785 million in grants and tax breaks last year through a competitive awards process. The state announced Tuesday that all 739 projects that are receiving aid are in some form of development, with 75 percent already past the contract phase.
"We are going to be poised for a recovery like this state has never seen," Cuomo told the business leaders at the daylong meeting at the Capitol. "This state has every asset imaginable ... what we haven't had is this: leadership. And you've brought that, and I'm thankful."
The councils have brought together different demographics from a region to develop a list of priorities and top projects they want the state to fund. Cuomo formed them a year ago.
The councils this fall will be vying for a pot of $762 million in state aid and tax breaks. Five awards of $25 million will be made to the top plans.
The councils are slated to submit their top projects for review by the state on Sept. 24, along with a one-year progress report.
Dennis Murray, the president of Marist College in Poughkeepsie, said that the Mid-Hudson Regional Council had diverse interests -- from the needs of its cities like Newburgh, White Plains and Poughkeepsie to the rural needs of Sullivan County.
"It poised some challenges for us," Murray, who co-chairs the council, said. "We think our plan had an insufficient focus and a limited pipeline for potential priority projects last year. So we spent a lot of time gaining that focus and sharing that there were projects that could compete with the very best in this round of funding."
Four councils -- in central New York, the North Country, Long Island and the Buffalo area -- were the top winners last year, with each receiving more than $100 million.
The other six councils received pots of money for their hometown projects. The nine-county Finger Lakes region, including Rochester, received $68.8 million, and the Hudson Valley region got $67 million. The Southern Tier region got $49.4 million.
Only some of their priority projects were funded. Some business leaders said they've bolstered their plans and are hopeful for additional funding this year.
In the Hudson Valley, only one of its three priority projects was funded: $4 million for a New York Medical College biotechnology incubator laboratory in Westchester County. In the Finger Lakes, $5 million was allocated to a partnership between the University of Rochester and IBM for a new Health Sciences Center for Computational Innovation.
"In the past year, we have been tremendously impressed by the progress that has been made through this process," said Joel Seligman, the college's president and co-chairman of the Finger Lakes council.
Seligman and other business leaders said the regions still face challenges. The state's unemployment rate last month grew to 9.1 percent, compared to 8.3 percent nationally and 8.2 percent in New York last year, according to the state Department of Labor.
Seligman said the city of Rochester's redevelopment is important, and, "we're uncertain what is going to happen with Eastman Kodak. That potentially could be a very hard event." The iconic Rochester company is in bankruptcy.
Howard Zemsky, a Buffalo-area developer and co-chairman of the western New York regional council, said it is difficult to get enough skilled workers to fill the positions that are open, particularly in the manufacturing sector that was once the backbone of the upstate economy.
"We have jobs that are looking for people. We have people that are looking for jobs. And we've got to bridge the skills gap," Zemsky said.
In the Southern Tier, development had been hampered by two major storms that devastated parts of Binghamton and surrounding areas, said Tom Tranter, the president of Corning Enterprises. He said some of the aid received last year helped companies rebuild, saying, "We suffered a pretty strong setback."
Cuomo said he was pleased with the progress the councils have made. He said the economy is affected by national policy, state policy and policies developed in a region.
"This regional council comes down to simply putting the right group at the table to develop those regional economies," Cuomo said.