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The future and the race for the Cuomo Billions


Maybe I'm just in a January funk. But nationally and here at home, poverty and wealth disparity are crippling us, and I'm seeing a lot of small-bore, more-of-the-same plans to deal with them.

I'll comment another time on the president's State of the Union address - and on Governor Cuomo's State of the State address, which he's giving January 21. Right now, let me mutter about Cuomo's latest Big Idea: a $1.5 billion Upstate Revitalization Competition to boost the region's economy. If the state legislature approves the plan, the money will come from the $5 billion surplus from the big bank settlement.

"Upstate" is one of those words that mean different things to different New Yorkers. In this case, it's much of the state north of the Big City: the Finger Lakes (including Rochester), the Southern Tier, Central New York, the North Country, the Mohawk Valley, the Capital area, and the Mid-Hudson area.

You may have noticed that those are the same regions - minus Buffalo and New York City - that have been competing for money from another Big Cuomo Initiative: the Regional Economic Development Council grants. And as with those grants, we'll all have to compete for a share of the $1.5 billion: seven regions competing for one of three awards, each worth $500 million.

The new money is bigger. In the four years of the regional economic development program, Rochester's largest grant has been $96.2 million. We could get more than five times that from the new program. It's not Buffalo's billion, but still....

People in the seven regions are supposed to think about what their resources and needs are and what kind of economic development initiatives they're best suited for. Then they're to come up with a proposal for investing $500 million.

At the press conference announcing the program last week, Cuomo and Howard Zemsky, the new CEO of Empire State Development, said that leaders in each region will have to come up with a strong, well-thought-out plan.

But I worry. Other than the size of the awards, this feels a lot like the Regional Economic Development competition. At the beginning, I thought that program had potential. My understanding was that the awards were to go to big initiatives that would create jobs long-term and boost the region. These were to be "transformational" projects, as several people labeled them.

Over the program's four years, some of the money went to significant economic development initiatives like the Eastman Business Park's Biosciences Manufacturing Center and High Tech Rochester. But the money has also been awarded to apartment developments for the elderly, the Letchworth Park bridge over the Genesee River, a park along the Genesee in Rochester, an update to the Brighton comprehensive plan, work at Frontier Field, and a blood-pressure screening program.

It's not that these are not worthy projects. But they don't feel "transformational." And I worry that the new awards will follow the same path.

It would be awful for the state to have this much money available to invest and see it frittered away. Maybe it won't be. Maybe the three awards will go to projects that really are transformational. Maybe Rochester will get one of them. And maybe it'll give us the shot in the arm that we need.

On the other hand, big problems are dragging us down, poverty being the major one. And to solve the poverty problem, we need to address education (from infancy on up), training, wages.... And the cost of that will make the Buffalo Billion seem like piggy-bank change.

It's not that the economic-developments initiatives funded by the regional councils can't help. They can. But a big focus needs to go to ending poverty and the damage it's doing - to those living in it, and to the state. And there, I see plenty of words, but not much vision or long-term commitment. More on that later.