10:39am

Thu January 5, 2012
Politics

Cuomo promise of $1 billion to Buffalo not a sure thing

While Governor Andrew Cuomo’s pledge to spend $1 billion on Buffalo’s economic recovery was met with enthusiasm during his State of the State speech Wednesday, the money is far from guaranteed.

The $1 billion promise also comes with no specifics as to what it is or how it will be spent. The assumption is that it’s a mix of tax breaks and incentives aimed to convince companies to set up shop in Buffalo.

“It’s going to be put on the street to leverage private sector dollars to create more jobs. And hopefully as those people get employed they’re going to reinvest in their own communities. That’s how you’re going to build your way out of the economic malaise that exists right now,” says Brian Sampson, with business advocacy group Unshackle Upstate.

Calling Buffalo “a struggling area of the state,” Cuomo told those gathered in Albany that $1 billion in aid is the missing puzzle piece for a city that he also declared to have “talent” and a “strong, willing workforce.”

Like most new projects mentioned in Cuomo’s address, details for the $1 billion were absent and will likely remain so until the governor’s formal budget proposal still weeks away.

Regardless, the hope for the $1 billion is this: businesses large and small will feel lured to Buffalo based on generous incentives geared toward making re-location to New York’s second-biggest city more attractive financially. The Cuomo administration envisions an ensuing environment where jobs will sprout, thus restoring the city’s tax base and ushering in an economic renaissance that’s evaded Buffalo for 50 years.

Uphill push

A quarter century ago a similar program was launched in a hobbling Albany economy, which now reaps the rewards of a bustling nanotech industry. But before Buffalo can try to mimic that success, the $1 billion package must pass through a downstate-heavy legislature.

“Is it going to be an uphill push? You bet,” Sampson says.

But in the horse trading of the budget process, upstate’s interests might stand a chance this year because Cuomo made sure to include a little something for everybody, such as $4 billion for a new convention center in New York City, Sampson says

“Like most things, the devil will be in the details. But if what we heard today is reflected in the budget, upstate New Yorkers have a lot of good things to look forward to,” Sampson says.

But it may sound like déjà vu for western New Yorkers. Albany has a history of overpromising and ultimately failing to deliver, says University at Buffalo Political Science Professor Jim Battista.

Splashy announcements often yield to a reality of years-long bureaucratic processes that splinter large dollar amounts into ineffective doses. But that story doesn’t often grab headlines, says Battista.

“Why engage in [political] theater that makes it sounds like you’re being arguably more generous than you are? Because who doesn’t want to be seen as being more generous than [he/she is]?” Battista says. “There are elements of political theater to this, sure. But there’s an extent to which political theater can matter.”

It matters in this case, Battista says, because Wednesday’s attention-seizing announcement could help long-neglected upstaters feel connected to Albany.

But in this era of hyper-attention to the spending of taxpayer money, Battisata says citizens could also wonder how a cash-strapped state, which has laid off thousands in the past few years and cut services, can afford to promise $1 billion to Buffalo.