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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Award ‘show’ makes farce of councils

Maybe it’s because I’m a cynical journalist, but last week’s Oscar-like ceremony for the state’s annual economic development awards struck me as a ridiculous bit of political theater.
The pep-rally atmosphere, celebrity emcee (Fox Business Network personality Maria Bartiromo) and carefully orchestrated unveiling of “top performers” seemed to have no other purpose than giving important people an opportunity to shake each other’s hands and cheer for the governor, who happens to be running for reelection next year.
I was so put off by all the glad-handing and congratulatory tweets that it took me a while to consider the economic development awards themselves, and whether they had any merit. If the money was being directed toward worthy local projects, perhaps the ceremony would seem less distasteful. A small price to pay for millions and millions and millions of dollars.
Overall, $716 million was awarded to 824 projects in 10 different regions. The Capital Region received the second largest amount, $82.8 million for 100 different projects, while the Mohawk Valley received $82.4 million for 76 different projects.
And many of the projects do look interesting, though I question the state’s job-creation claims, which I suspect are overstated.
For instance, Albany County received over $1 million to construct 5.5 miles of proposed rail trail. I love rail trails and think an Albany County rail trail could be a great thing. But how many jobs will this project really create?
I was also pleased to see that the Galesi Group had received $5 million to redevelop the former Alco site in Schenectady into a mixed-use waterfront community. The Alco site is an eyesore, and transforming it into something viable and attractive would do wonders for Schenectady. Of course, the cost of the project is estimated at about $200 million, so the state money is a mere drop in the bucket. Will it make a difference? Only time will tell.
The Regional Economic Development Council awards are structured as a competition.
Regions battle publicly for funds, and the top fi ve counties are designated “top performers.” Though the Capital Region earned a coveted top performer designation, last year it finished dead last, raking in just $50.3 million. For whatever reason, this year the area merits roughly $30 million more than it did in 2012.
I don’t object to the Capital Region winning big.
But the big jump in funding makes me wonder whether the state is really concerned about directing funding to the neediest places and best projects. Over the past three years, the North Country has won the most in economic development money, about $274.7 million, which makes the Capital Region’s haul, $195.8 million, look relatively paltry. Is there any particular reason the North Country, where hardly anybody lives, deserves $78.9 million more than the Capital Region?
In an interview with the news site Capital New York, Empire State Development president Ken Adams explained that the process isn’t supposed to be fair.
“There’s never enough resources to go around,” he said. “It’s not a question about a mathematical formula and it’s not a question of being all things to all people, or even what you would think of as relative fairness. … Is there a formula for equitable distribution? This is not a program that’s built on that model. This is built on the model of a competition.”
Yes, why would you want to create an equitable distribution model? That’s so boring! Let’s have a competition instead — games are fun!
Unfortunately, in this context the word competition is really code for pork barrel spending.
Technically, former Gov. David Paterson eliminated pork barrel funding when he barred member items, in which lawmakers appropriated state grants to pet projects during the budget process.
But this doesn’t mean pork ever really went away, as a quick scan of some of the smaller economic development projects reveals.
The long list of projects includes $59,200 for the local snowmobile club Frontier Sno Riders to purchase grooming equipment, $42,000 for the Saratoga Rowing Association to build a regatta center and $60,000 for Proctors to launch a multimedia marketing campaign for its partnership with the circus Cirque Eloize. Of course, one person’s pork is another person’s much-needed, worthy project, which might explain the cheers and general upbeat mood from the Capital Region delegation at last week’s award ceremony. And what kind of person looks a gift horse in the mouth? After all, more money will be awarded next year. And nobody wants to lose.

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