Down to Business: Cuomo event tests skills as seat-filler

I gazed into the future and saw myself as a professional seat-filler.

I gazed into the future and saw myself as a professional seat-filler.

The revelation came this week in Albany, at a meeting of the state’s regional economic development councils. The councils, organized by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to represent 10 geographic areas stretching from Long Island to Buffalo, are the vehicles through which New York now intends to deliver economic development assistance — an approach the governor calls “transformative.” By that he means from the bottom up: Locals get together to assess how best to move along their hometown economies, then pitch those ideas to the state for financial backing. At stake initially is some $200 million in aid that will be granted competitively.

Named to the councils were representatives from local businesses, governments and the education and nonprofit sectors. They started work over the summer and face a late-fall deadline for submitting to the state five-year strategic plans; in between, they’re holding town hall meetings to gather ideas and suggestions.

On Tuesday, all 10 councils were invited to Albany for a daylong conference, a pep rally of sorts that also included high-minded discussion on topics such as manufacturing, venture capital and agribusiness. The big draw was a scheduled keynote address by former President Bill Clinton, in whose administration Cuomo served. The governor has said the regional councils were modeled on Clinton’s Empowerment Zone program, which encouraged public-private grassroots planning for targeted neighborhood investment. Cuomo oversaw that initiative as Clinton’s secretary of housing and urban development.

And here’s where we get back to my newfound seat-filling skills.

The governor’s office organized a lottery for people interested in hearing Clinton’s speech, so I tried my luck and won a seat in the audience at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center. Arriving early — per the emailed “Congratulations!” instructions — I latched onto a group of some two dozen offered “a great deal” by someone on Cuomo’s staff: Attend a “special announcement” by the governor at the conference’s opening and get floor seats for Clinton’s noontime address.

It took no time to understand our real purpose at the nearby Hart Theatre: to occupy seats toward the front that otherwise would be empty in the planned video live-stream. And in filling the seats — as others are called to do for televised celebrity events like the Oscars — we got to hear what Cuomo bragged of as a “really, really big deal”: plans by semiconductor giants Intel, IBM, Taiwan Semiconductor, GlobalFoundries and Samsung to invest $4.4 billion in New York over the next five years on facilities and processes that will develop the next generation in computer technology.

The work will occur at locations as far-flung as Canandaigua and East Fishkill, but the University at Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering will be home to the Global 450 Consortium, the name given to the effort to shift from 300-millimeter to 450-millimeter wafers to produce more advanced computer chips. Some 2,500 new high-tech jobs are expected to result, 800 of which will be at the Albany NanoTech complex.

Once we completed that seat-filling assignment, we marshaled ourselves back to the Convention Center to claim our promised floor seats — located way in the back row. After some confusion, we were rousted from there and reseated on the adjacent sidelines.

But don’t you know that as the Convention Center filled, not every floor seat was occupied. And so we seat-fillers were called upon once more to cover a vacant chair. Not a bad assignment, I must say, but hardly as glamorous as the Oscars.

Marlene Kennedy, a longtime business editor in the Capital Region, can be reached by email at [email protected]

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