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Innovation Center looks to expand, with taxpayer money

Senator Chuck Schumer says he "will not rest" until the Innovation Center receives federal money to expand in downtown Buffalo.
Daniel Robison
Senator Chuck Schumer says he "will not rest" until the Innovation Center receives federal money to expand in downtown Buffalo.

The Innovation Center in downtown Buffalo is nearly full of small startup companies taking their first steps in the business world.

“We’re using the space for early stage companies that come out of the [University at Buffalo] or other incubators in the region. This is kind of a halfway house before they enter the real world,” says Patrick Whalen, CEO of the Innovation Center.

Now, the 15-month-old business incubator is aiming to double in size - but will likely need to rely on help from the federal government. 

So Senator Chuck Schumer is pledging to find taxpayer funds for the project.

The Economic Development Administration is the senator’s target. On Monday he vowed to pressure the federal agency to pony up millions of dollars.

“It almost suits them to a ‘T,’” says Schumer. “So we have the peg: the doubling of the Innovation Center. And the hole: the EDA program. And now it’s going to be my job to push that peg through the hole. And I want to assure the citizens of western New York that I will not rest until we get this done.”

Yet, assistance from Washington isn’t a sure thing, and the Innovation Center officials have yet to draft a proposal for the EDA that will justify the agency spending millions in taxpayer dollars.

While it could take months or years before the process with the EDA plays out - if at all - it’s never too early to get the ball rolling, says Schumer, of his public announcement.

“We want to take that research and sort of like Rapunzel, turn it into jobs. Turn the straw into gold. Not that the research is just straw, it’s not. But the gold for us is jobs here in western New York,” Schumer says (it’s likely the state’s senior senator meant to refer to the story Rumpelstiltskin, where the miller’s daughter spun straw into gold).

Undoubtedly, local officials will champion the incubator’s role as a job creator, since 31 tiny companies call the place home. But the companies only have 83 jobs between them. So far, growth has been slow.

The EDA does take suggestions from legislators like Schumer, but it has no obligation to bite. And neither the senator nor Innovation Center officials offered a backup plan at Monday’s press conference.

Western New York has searched for a firm economic footing for decades. Most recently, hopes are being invested in harnessing medical research funded locally into early-stage companies and then helping those businesses grow. The Innovation Center is a centerpiece of this strategy and has received public help in the past.

“Shame on everyone if we let it die, if we don’t nurture it, help it grow and help it flourish,” Schumer told those assembled.

Last month, Rochester’s Central Business District received a $2 million grant from the EDA, which Schumer claimed credit for. Like the Innovation Center’s goal to rehab and expand within an existing building, Rochester’s Midtown Plaza will pay for infrastructure improvements with its EDA cash.

WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.