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New York's Regions Compete In "Hunger Games" For Economic Development Dollars

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Political and private sector leaders from around the state are spending three days at the Capitol, making their best case to win a share of $1.5 billion dollars in economic development monies for their region. Critics have called the competition the “hunger games,” because, under the rules, three regions will win, but four others will lose out on the funds.

Perhaps the most ambitious plan presented by the regions competing for the money may be returning the Olympics to New York. 

“In the words of Al Michaels, ‘Do you believe in miracles?’,” the narrator in the North Country region’s video presentation says, citing the historic win of the US hockey  team over the then Soviet Union in 1980 in Lake Placid. Representatives from the North Country say Lake Placid could repeat its role hosting the winter games in 1932 and 1980.

The Mohawk Valley region, which titled it’s presentation “sparking transformation,” says if it wins the competition, it will dedicate one percent of all state funds to public artwork, civic innovations and projects in under -served neighborhoods.  But not surprisingly , many of the plans focus on expanding high tech related industries which already have a foothold in some places, including the Capital Region, and Rochester, and on expanding niche agricultural production like craft brewing.

The Southern Tier emphasized its status as one of the poorest regions in the state, when making its pitch. Harvey Stenger, President of the State University at Binghamton,  says the plan focuses on health sciences and more manufacturing of cars and high speed trains. But he says the plan aims to lure tourists to the area.

“We really do believe that the Southern Tier isn’t just going to be a region when we’re done,” Stenger said. “It’s going to be a destination.”

The Cuomo Administration’s Empire State Development Corporation is overseeing the competition. It’s CEO, Howard  Zemsky says the plans are “outstanding”, well researched and build on each region’s strengths.

“I like what they’ve done,” Zemsky said.

Not everyone thinks the distribution of taxpayer funds to the regions is a good idea. EJ McMahon, of the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative think tank, says state government should be spending the money instead on the state’s crumbling infrastructure, instead of on “subsidized development”.

“This is sort of like having a dilapidated house, and putting really nice snazzy vinyl siding and new windows on it,” McMahon said. “But ultimately, the house is still in danger of falling down.”

But McMahon says politically, Governor Cuomo and others can score more points by highlighting the regions’ dreams and ambitions. 

“Grandiose, glitzy plans for exciting new things is much more fun for politicians than repairing things you already have,” said McMahon.

Zemsky, with Empire State Development counters  critics who say the money could be better spent elsewhere. He says the strategy of not investing in upstate in recent decades has not helped matters.

“The empirical evidence is that now that upstate has declined for forty years, what we were doing wasn’t working,” Zemsky said.

He says the intensified competition among the regions, which some have dubbed the “hunger games” has “brought out the best” in the  plans, and he says the money is secondary. The four regions who don’t win will still receive at least $75 million dollars through the regular regional awards held each December.  Zemsky says planners will be surprised what they can accomplish even without a large influx of money, now that they have a vision.

“When you have coherent plan that you’re going to follow for the next five years, you’d be amazed at what you can get done if you stick with it,” Zemsky said. 

Zemsky is from Buffalo, which is the only region not in the running for the additional funds. The area is already the recipient of the Buffalo Billion, a billion dollars from Cuomo to build among other things, a giant solar factory. It has been credited with reenergizing the financially struggling city and  Western New York, but the awarding of bids on the project is the subject of a federal probe. Zemsky says he can’t comment on that, but says his agency is cooperating, and providing all documents that have been requested.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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