Syracuse council thinks upstate has a fighting chance for funds

Aug 4, 2011

Central New York leaders got into the competitive spirit of the governor's new economic development initiative at their first meeting today, with some fighting words.

From council co-chair, Nancy Cantor of Syracuse University:

"We know there's competition in this but we know we'll win."

And from the other chair, Rob Simpson of CenterState CEO:

"We will put forward one of the best plans in the state of New York, if not the best."

What's at stake

The two dozen council members and staffers who piled into a library conference room after their first meeting sounded upbeat.

Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy, who's overseeing all 10 councils, says upstate regions can hold their own against downstate's bigger population. He says there's "no differential in talent."

"I think everybody is on a very even keel to compete," Duffy says. "There is no doubt that central New York can compete with anybody in the state. And, seeing what I saw today, the rest of the state better watch out."

New York State has pledged $1 billion in funding, spread over five years, to encourage the 10 regional councils across the state to come up with plans for their economies.

The funding application process has two parts: First the councils have to develop a plan. Then they identify projects that can fit into that plan. The councils will have to come up with their plans in just a few short months.

"It's a monumental challenge but one that we're definitely up to," says Simpson.

Building social capital

Council member Tony Baird is the only African-American on the central New York team. He runs Tony Baird Electronics in Syracuse, a small business that does government contracting. He said he's optimistic that the council is attempting to do more than just throw money at businesses to create jobs.

"That's my push: how do we make this social capital work. And I guess maybe it's a confidence in myself that I can do something and add to this environment that will help this to go."

Not everyone is able to contribute just yet. The councils came under fire for closing their first meetings to the public. As Duffy noted yesterday - in response to complaints at the first western New York council meeting - future meetings will be open to the public. 

Community activist Joanne Stevens, who waited outside in Syracuse, says she'll be there.

"You better believe it! But you know the only thing about that - once it's open to the public, they've already spent the money."

"Road warrior"

The head of the state's economic development arm, Ken Adams was in Rochester Wednesday for the kick-off of the Finger Lakes council, and said review of projects will be ongoing. His agency, Empire State Development, will continue its funding through assistance programs like Excelsior - but in the future, will run potential projects through the councils for review.

"The council as a body doesn't receive the funding. The council outlines key projects in its region that sort of underscore its plan," Adams says.

Lieutenant Governor Duffy says he will be a "road warrior," attending the twice-monthly meetings every council through November, when they'll submit their applications. State awards will come out by the end of the year.

And in true road warrior fashion, Duffy left immediately for a meeting in Albany, to go on to Binghamton's council meeting in the afternoon.