Regional Councils: Try and try again

Sep 16, 2011

In May of 1984, the recently-elected Governor Mario Cuomo got up in front of the press at the Buffalo Convention Center to talk about his new initiative to help create jobs: Ten councils to help plan regional economic development.

This summer, his son, Governor Andrew Cuomo, is touting nearly the same thing: Ten councils, to help plan regional economic development.

Mario Cuomo delegated the day-to-day management of the councils to his lieutenant governor, Alfred DelBello. Andrew Cuomo had done the same, delegating his councils to his lieutenant governor, former Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy. 
 

"Back then Cuomo – the other Cuomo – was saying 'we don't want to dictate what should happen at the local level'," says longtime Niagara Gazette reporter Don Glynn. "That's basically what the current [governor is] saying."

And that raises a question for Glynn.

"You have to ask," he recently wrote in his own paper, "if the regional council plan was so successful back then, why didn't they just keep it?"

Refining a model

Since the days of Mario Cuomo's councils, every single governor has tried a plan that looks in some part, like what Andrew Cuomo is suggesting.  

I know this, because as I listed off what I thought was a list of all the governor's that had attempted this to Mario Cuomo's lieutenant governor, Alfred Delbello, he interrupted me, to make sure that I included Governor George Pataki's version. He threw his hat in the regional council ring too.

Some of the attempts at regional development have been bigger than others, but all have recognized a fundamental fact of life in New York State: that the needs of Buffalo are very different than the needs of the North Country – which is worlds apart from the situation in New York City.

"Every governor has tried it," says DelBello. "And it's going to be tried again in a very serious way today, and I think that's gratifying."

The way DelBello sees it, the councils didn't fail, but rather faded in light of the governors' other pressing priorities – only to be remade anew each time by the next administration.

"The governor has to be 100 percent behind it," he says.

"We can't raise the region alone"

Kevin LaMontagne is in the unique position of sitting on today's central New York Regional Council and running a company that was the recipient of a grant from the Paterson administration's regional planning attempt.

LaMontagne is CFO of the Fulton Companies, a privately-owned manufacturer of industrial-sized boilers headquartered in Pulaski, N.Y.

The Spitzer and then Paterson administration efforts, called "Regional Blueprints," were smaller than the current initiative, with less money and fewer meetings. But like the current administration's plan, the initiative also involved coming up with local priorities and funding projects that matched.

Fulton is literally weeks from completion of a major factory expansion, funded in part by a $1.5 million state loan, which will be forgiven over five years if the company hires 50 more employees.

LaMontagne says the promise of the state grant gave the company the confidence to break ground in New York, and will bring secondary benefits to the local economy.

But the company's new wing was one of only a handful of Blueprint projects funded in all of central New York, a region that stretches from the shores of Lake Ontario to Syracuse, to the northern border of the Appalachian mountain range.

"Is a $1.5 million grant in Pulaski, N.Y. going to impact the economic life of someone in Auburn?" LaMontagne reflects. "Of course we can't raise the region alone. No single project can raise the region. But I think we've done our part and we will continue to do our part."

LaMontagne is optimistic so far about what the latest and biggest regional council attempt can accomplish. But he's also realistic. The state's challenges are really big, and another round of regional planning and funding are a start. But they're only the beginning.

In fact, says David Perry, who was director of the center for regional studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo during Mario Cuomo's administration, the magnitude of the problem is what makes it imperative that each governor make his own go at a solution.

"Each governor has to try, because [of] the magnitude of the issues, and the impact it has on his or her constituents," he says.

Lessons from the past

Advocates for the younger Cuomo's plan call it a new paradigm for economic development, and say it's not a flash in the pan. Former Lieutenant Governor DelBello agrees that this time, the councils could be built to last. 

But DelBello warns that his successors in Albany should try to to keep the large councils from becoming another unwieldy layer of bureaucracy.

"Keeping it a little less formal, and a little more dynamic – where there's a great deal more give and take, and the state plays a larger role in trying to feed the needs of each of those regions – might be more effective," DelBello advises.

"But you know I can't tell. We have to see how this develops."

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 survey to let us know what your priorities are for your community.