UU Partner Perspective is the first post in a new series of blog posts written by the UU regional executive partners. This first piece is written by Andrew Rudnick, Co-Founder of Unshackle Upstate and President and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

After months of postponements and with much fanfare, Governor Cuomo announced the launch and membership of his long awaited 10 Regional Economic Development Councils at the end of July.

Five Buffalo Niagara Partnership board members – including myself – are members of the WNY council.  Among the 28 members of the WNY Council, there are approximately 10 businesspeople, and we’ve formed an informal caucus among them, in order to try to make the business perspective as effective and focused as possible.

Each council’s initial job is to complete a strategic economic development plan for its region (our region is Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, and Niagara counties) by November 14.  The format for that plan, as well as the process for completing it are precisely defined by the Governor’s office.

In my conversations with Partnership members, electeds and other government officials, and even council members, there is a lot of misinformation about what the councils can do.  I think that’s because of the extensive media coverage of sometimes unconsciously overhyped statements made during the council announcements. The implementation of the councils’ actual activities really is a “work in progress” due to the limited number of Cuomo administration central staffers who are directing this work only recently being able to turn their attention to it, and because there is a strong bias among them that any/all prior economic development planning efforts are “unworthy” of serious consideration in this process.

So, in the context of the above, let me try to provide you with a sense of what we’re trying to accomplish with the WNY council and of the council “culture” which doesn’t make it easy:

  • It’s absolutely critical that there be a common, explicit definition of economic development which drives all of our council’s work.  We believe that definition is “expanding sustained private sector investment and jobs”.  And, in turn, all of the council’s specific recommendations should be prioritized according to how directly and quickly they achieve that outcome.
  • The council’s plan is not (and should not be) “all about the money” and that’s for two primary reasons.  First, there’s really only very limited resources directly available in response to the councils’ proposals; it’s not the advertised $1 billion, but only $200 or so million across all 10 councils, with four councils getting $40 million each and the other six councils somehow splitting the remaining $40 million – $6.67 million each (ie. the expressed “competition” merely is for getting either of those amounts); and the sources of the $200 or so million – capital funds and tax credits – further limit the impact (eg. there’s no “cash” for something like a venture capital fund).  Second and far more significant (but less “sexy”), virtually every business person and economic development professional firmly believes (including ESDC President Kenneth Adams in his address at our Accelerate Upstate conference) the items which will have the greatest, most widespread, and sustaining positive impact on expanding private sector jobs and investment are removing government “barriers” and consciously organizing the agencies delivering government tools and services – including the revision of the criteria they used to allocate their resources – in response to specific economic development opportunities.  None of this costs $, most of it can be achieved by administrative order without legislative action, and if it is achieved, it’s a home run, probably a grand slam.
  • The combination of a very tight schedule, a commitment to a prescribed process which includes meetings scheduled around the calendars of the state officials, the “reinventing the wheel” approach which comes from the bias against utilizing similar work done in even the recent past, and having all meetings open to the media and others definitely is not conducive to generating thoughtful work products achieved in an effective/efficient way.  It’s also likely to frustrate/turn off the business members of the council who represent the ultimate “customer” of what the councils are all about – private sector employers and investors.  We cannot let that happen.

So there you have it – my briefing of what actually is taking place in and around our regional economic development council.  We will work hard at making it “right” and as positively impactful as possible.  Indeed, we have lots of staff coordinating working groups and volunteers directly engaged to do so.

Andrew J. Rudnick
President & CEO
Buffalo Niagara Partnership