Robert Jones, the president of the University at Albany, is used to competing for funding dating back to his days as a scientist. You’re not going to get the co-chair of the Capital Region Regional Economic Development Council (CRREDC) to deride Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to make upstate regions vie in a $1.5 billion economic development competition.
Same goes for local mayors such as Gary McCarthy of Schenectady and Kathy Sheehan of Albany, who were at Union College Friday for a CRREDC meeting that featured Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and other state officials outlining the competition.
“You can’t sit at Union College, home of the national hockey champs, and not feel competitive,” Hochul said.
Some have derided the competition as some sort of “Hunger Games,” where there will be winners and losers, advocating instead to spread the money evenly. State officials have countered that the competition will yield better ideas, and even for regions not selected there will be more development dollars available than in years past.
“There are no losers,” Hochul said. “There are only different degrees of winners. … We wanted to stimulate the competitive spirit.”
Seven upstate regions excluding Buffalo are competing for three $500 million pots of economic development funds, a one-time infusion coming from $5.4 billion in settlements from the bank and insurance industries.
All state regions outside the three selected will also be in the running for monies from a $1.5 billion fund that could yield each $90 million or more.
“Even regions that do not win are quote, unquote winning,” said Ryan Silva, director of Regional Economic Development Councils for the state.
State officials told local leaders Friday that winning proposals will not merely be a collection of worthy projects, but must have the potential to recast a region.
The state, said Richard M. Tobe, the director of Upstate Revitalization who is overseeing the competition, is looking for “projects that are going to transform.” The initiatives must be innovative and bring about sustainable, long-term change. Not eligible are retail, health care, infrastructure, general support education and speculative real estate plans, he added, although there could be exceptions.
But the projects must have scale to affect entire regions.
“Go big or go home,” Hochul said.
The deadline for applications has not been set, and is contingent upon passage of the state budget.
What makes the proposal different from other economic development proposals is that regions are being asked to look beyond the individual projects and communities, and examine how they will not only recast but interconnect different communities and constituencies in the regions.
“As mayors we worry about our potholes and pipes,” Sheehan said. “This is about stepping back and saying ‘What do we want to be?’ ”
Creating well-paying jobs will be paramount to any proposal. State officials said there will be another key criteria: regional unity. “We expect debate,” Tobe said, “but the region must be behind your plan. We are looking for a demonstration that there is a broad consensus.”
Local officials said in the past that the Capital Region has viewed itself as a collection of distinct communities unto themselves, a parochial mindset.
“There is, and that is one of the things we decided we have to break down,” Jones said. “It can’t be an Albany-centric strategy. It really does have to leverage both the urban areas … but also the surrounding communities. It will be a comprehensive strategy.
“We have to use a much different way of thinking about the region,” he added.
Sheehan and McCarthy said localities are working together more than in previous years.
“The perception may linger from the past, but we are working together, more on a functional level and more on a day-to-day basis” McCarthy said.
Now they have 500 million reasons to redouble those efforts.