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Governor Andrew Cuomo announced early in his term that he'd be creating a set of "regional economic councils" to build plans for funding economic development across New York, from the ground up.In the summer of 2011 he finally announced some of the details of the program, to be led by Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy. The ten councils each have dozens of members, and are charged with gathering input from the public and business leaders, and creating a plan by November 14. Those plans will be pitted against each other for a pot of $1 billion in grants, incentives, and tax relief from various state agencies. The winners will get more funding, the losers will get less.But other details - like whether funding will be available past the initial term, and who will serve on the board that decides who wins and who loses - have not been released.The Innovation Trail is looking for your feedback about what your regional economic priorities are, and what you want your community to look like once the councils have completed their task.

Southern Tier council presents economic strategy

Matt Richmond
Included in the Southern Tier council's plans are passenger rail links and investment in the region's transportation technology industry.

The Southern Tier's economic development council presented its five-year strategy in Albany on Tuesday.

According to council co-chair Tom Tranter, who's also the CEO of Corning Enterprises, the Southern Tier's plan is focused on transportation technology, the energy efficiency industry, health care, rural development and local infrastructure.

"We were told right from the beginning by the lieutenant governor, this is all about job creation," says Tranter.

The council's plan focuses on strengthening the region's large businesses and research institutions - and it responds to a dramatic projected increase in the local senior citizen population, by supporting the health care industry.

In total, the plan is seeking $122 million during the next five years.

The big plan

The regional economic development councils were launched in July, and given a November 14 deadline to compile plans to govern regional economic development for the next five years. A review committee was appointed in November, to go over the plans and pick the "winners."

The four regions with the strongest plans get $40 million each for their proposed projects. The rest get less.

That money comes from a total pot of $1 billion, pulled together from various state agencies. The councils will play an ongoing role in determine who gets access to state economic development cash going forward.

Turning to higher ed

One of the ways the Southern Tier is banking on bringing home those funds is by forging links between higher education and large companies already in the region. Out of those links should come job opportunities for local graduates - and new companies that are based on research breakthroughs, reasons Lockheed Martin vice president Dan Spoor.

"There's kind of a unique combination of academic institutions here, combined with some of the larger private industries," says Spoor.

Spoor attended a Monday ribbon-cutting ceremony at Broome Community College, where a Lockheed-funded technology lab is already up-and-running.

According to Spoor, the lab's robotics club is familiarizing students with some of the tools and technologies used at Lockheed in the development of unmanned helicopters.

"So some of the basic concepts that the BCC students here are learning in terms of making robotic cars [are] the beginning of the concepts we use when we make next generation technology," he says.

That focus on high technology training in the schools is also already leading to new companies, according to Michael Stamm, president of Tompkins County's economic development agency.

"We've already begun to see more and more high tech companies start here, grow here, and many of them -even after they're acquired - are staying here," says Stamm.

Jobs at what cost?

But one element of the council's plan is troubling to David Currie, the executive director of the Binghamton Regional Sustainability Coalition.

He says focusing on large companies for the jobs they create often leads to local governments paying whatever price they have to, in the hopes of luring a big employer to the area. Industrial development agencies across the state have long doled out huge tax breaks with mixed results.

"I would just generally like to see economic development shift some of its emphasis from the attraction model, as I call it, which is how do we give tax breaks and other such things to attract industries to our area? That is often a no-win situation for our communities in my opinion simply because they can leave whenever they want," says Currie.

According to Currie, communities would be better served if the council had focused more on small business development.

"So every time we made a big tax break to a large business to get them to come here, we offer the same tax break to our local entrepreneur," he says.

Main Street is not completely unrepresented on the Southern Tier council though: some small business owners sit on the panel, and downtown revitalization is included in the plan.

But a conflict as old as economic development efforts themselves still remains. Will the desire to attract big companies and their thousands of jobs win out at the expense of fostering small businesses in the local economy - or will the region find a balance?

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