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Getting the bang out of 500 million bucks


University of Rochester President Joel Seligman spends much of the present thinking about the future.

He's working on a speech titled "The Future of Rochester," which he'll give to the Chatterbox Club later this month. As he's prepared the speech, he says that he's asked himself how the community envisions itself in 10 years, how it will achieve what it wants to, how it will be different, and what challenges it will face along the way.

For Seligman, this isn't just a thought exercise; these are the same questions that the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council, the state-convened board that he co-chairs, spent much of 2015 working on. The council developed a vision around these questions, and its subsequent plan of attack earned the region a $500 million Upstate Revitalization Initiative award from the state.

Now, council members are working to translate that vision into tangible investment, business growth, and jobs. The council forwarded dozens of potential URI projects to state officials, who need to sign off on each so they can get funding. As 2016 rolls on, the council and state will review other possible URI projects, which will lead to regular funding announcements from state and local officials.

But the council has a lot of work ahead of it this year and its URI duties are only part of the picture. It will also go through a separate process to solicit, review, and rank applications for projects seeking state funding; it'll work with the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative to get state and URI funds for poverty reduction efforts; and it'll seek out broadband infrastructure projects for a state program aimed at improving Internet speed and access for residents and businesses.

But the council's workload translates to a sense of possibility for Rochester, Seligman says. It's exciting to think about what the city could look like in 10 years, he says, especially compared to a decade ago, when downtown was dormant and the area's big companies were shrinking. At the time, the idea that downtown could be a vibrant, exciting, revitalized hub for living and working was difficult to imagine.

Even before the URI award, Rochester showed potential for a reversal. Real estate developers made major investments in downtown and the federal government designated the Rochester region as the hub of a nationwide photonics manufacturing institute. Some big, well-placed investments in the region and the city will hasten the city's evolution, Seligman says.

"There's a sense that, collectively, we could actually turn this thing around," he says.

The Finger Lakes council's plan for the Upstate Revitalization money centers on three key industries: optics and photonics, agriculture and food production, and what it calls next-generation manufacturing and technology. The latter includes high-tech manufacturing, such as the software, computing, and medical technology firms that are clustering in downtown Rochester.

The URI is a five-year program, so the region will draw around $100 million a year for various projects.

For the most part, the Finger Lakes region's URI funding hasn't been attached to specific projects. But the council's plan identifies a handful of potential investments, including a solar technology factory code-named Project Eagle that's planned for Alabama, Genesee County. The state took the wraps off of the project this past fall, revealing that 1366 Technologies plans to set up a large facility to manufacture silicon wafers for solar cells.

The company plans to invest $100 million initially and could invest as much as $700 million over time. But the Genesee County Economic Development Center, the county's economic development agency, is paying to put up the 1366 Technologies building, which it'll then lease to the company for 10 years. Some of the project's costs — the company is also receiving state and local tax incentives — will likely come from the URI award. The revitalization funding will largely take the form of grants, but those can be paired with other state funding sources and incentives — including tax credits — to encourage private investment.

"We're working out exactly what incentive is going to come from what funding source," Vinnie Esposito says. "I think it's likely that some of it will come from the URI, some of it will not. But that will be announced." Esposito is Finger Lakes regional director of Empire State Development and executive director of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council.

In a way, 1366 Technologies is a model for how state and local officials say they want the URI process to work: officials saw an opportunity for public support to lead to large private investment and potentially hundreds of jobs. The timing was weird, though, since the project was ready to move forward before the state said which regions would receive URI awards. But state officials say they want to see that sort of flexibility from the regional council; they want economic development leaders to seize opportunities as they occur.

Other investments, some of them down the road a bit, could include an expansion of University of Rochester's laser lab, an eco-brewing district anchored by the Genesee Brewery, a photonics manufacturing facility, and a Sweetwater Energy biorefinery at Eastman Business Park.

As it reviews other potential projects, the council will consider factors such as job creation, the amount of outside investment, and whether the project meets other stated goals, such as providing job opportunities for hard-to-place workers. Generally, the state wants projects that will create a substantial amount of jobs and have at least $5 in private investment for every $1 of state funding.

The Finger Lakes council's plan also places heavy emphasis on poverty reduction efforts, setting aside $100 million for those programs.

Some of the money will be invested in workforce development programs, though no specific awards for specific projects have been approved yet. But the plan also states directly that some of the $100 million will be used to advance key goals of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative.

Officials with the initiative are developing proposals and strategies to take to the council, and will submit applications for funding. But they have an idea of at least some of the efforts they want to pursue, and they know that they want to pilot them in the EMMA-Beechwood neighborhoods and Marketview Heights.

They want to use some of the funding to improve access to day care subsidies for working parents and home visitation services for new parents, both of which are important early childhood programs. They say that they hope that by boosting those programs, they may be able to convince some employers that there's value in providing those services for their employees and for their bottom lines, not unlike health insurance, says Leonard Brock, director of the Anti-Poverty Initiative.

The initiative has also focused on improving how services are provided. Officials want to find ways to concentrate key services, including social work, job coaching, and adult mentoring in community hubs, such as schools.

"We have a lot of disparate efforts," Brock says. "You may have programs and services on one side of town that [don't] necessarily exist on the other side of town. So this is an opportunity for us to kind of streamline and concentrate our resources within two neighborhoods. And with that, it becomes an actual system that still needs to be coordinated and aligned."