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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.

Regional councils face scarce funds, tight deadlines

Lieutenant governor Bob Duffy has his work cut out for him this fall. He's serving as co-chair for all 10 councils.
Marie Cusick
Lieutenant governor Bob Duffy has his work cut out for him this fall. He's serving as co-chair for all 10 councils.

After months of talk, and relatively few details, Governor Andrew Cuomo has finally unveiled his new economic development plan for the state.

He’s pushing a fast-paced approach that pits regions across New York against each other in a competition for state funding.

So how is it all supposed to work? Who’s involved? And what kind of results should we expect?

The process

At the heart of  Cuomo’s plan is the creation of 10 new regional economic development councils. 

Each one has about 30 members, all volunteers, chosen by the governor’s office for two-year terms. They include local leaders, in business, higher education, labor and elected officials.

Their task is to come up a five-year strategic economic plan for their region, which will then compete against other region’s plans for a billion-dollar pool of state funds.

The councils began holding bi-monthly meetings in August, and they have until November 14th to come up with their plans.

The governor insists that timeline isn’t too fast.

“You know, if you can’t do it in 90 days, you probably can’t do it,” says Cuomo.

After the plans are submitted, a committee of economic experts will review and rank the plans. Money should be awarded to winning regions by the end of this year.

Not that big a deal?

Not everyone is impressed with the idea.

E.J. McMahon is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute’s Empire Center, a fiscally conservative think tank in Albany.

He points out that a billion dollars is a small fraction of the state's total economy and believes that the effect of the councils will be marginal at best.

“It can’t hurt and it might help a bit,” says McMahon, “But I do think it’s the sort of thing that politicians do because the economy is a problem, [and] the economy is a challenge.  Something must be done, [and] this is something.”

Three months may not sound like a lot of time to re-shape a regional economy, but officials with the governor’s administration say there’s an urgent need for action.

Ken Adams heads Empire State Development, the agency charged with overseeing the councils.

“There’s an urgency of the economy,” says Adams, “especially [in] upstate New York where we’re really suffering economically and there’s just no time to waste.”

However, some people are worried that the competition won’t be fair.

Erie County executive, Chris Collins, is an advisor on the Western New York Council.

“The skepticism in me says this money will be going downstate,” says Collins.

Others note that the stakes aren’t very high.

McMahon believes that no matter how that billion dollars gets divided, it won’t make much of a difference.

“If upstate regions somehow won the competition, shut out downstate, and all the money went to upstate New York,  you’d still be talking about an amount of money that is one half of one percent of the economy of upstate New York.  It just isn’t that big a deal,” he says.

Open meetings, sort of

The councils have also been criticized for a lack of transparency. So far, many meetings have been either partially or completely closed to the public.

Although they aren’t subject to the open meetings law, the councils are required to come up with plans to ensure public input, which include websites, social media, and public forums.

Michael Castellana is the co-chair of the Capital Region Council, and he insists transparency is a priority.

“This is not going to be something that is done in the back room,” says Castellana.  “This is going to be done in the full light of day... we are not only going to tell people what we’re doing, but we want input. We want people to participate in the process.”

But as that process unfolds, some major questions remain unanswered.

 Specifically, who gets to choose the winning regions? What does a successful plan even look like? And, how much money will be around in the future, after that initial billion dollars is spent?

Join the Innovation Trail, Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy, and other guests Friday, September 16 at 1 p.m. on your local public radio station, for Innovation Conversation: Your Community, Your Call, to discuss the councils and what you want for your region's economy.  And take our surveyto let us know what your priorities are for your community.

WMHT/Capital Region reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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