Q&A: Howard Zemsky

Howard Zemsky is co-chairman of the Regional Economic Development Council for Western New York and will play a significant role in the shaping of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to invest $1 billion of state incentives in the Buffalo-area economy.

He’s been hailed for his company’s redevelopment of the former Graphic Controls building on Seneca Street into the Larkin at Exchange Building, which has served as a catalyst for the revitalization of the surrounding neighborhood.

He’s active in the civic and preservationist community. Cuomo recently appointed Zemsky chairman of the Buffalo State College Council and is expected to soon elevate him from commissioner to chairman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

Zemsky is also president of the Richardson Center Corp., charged with restoring that historic property, and also serves on the boards of the Martin House Restoration Corp., the Michigan Street Preservation Commission and Buffalo Place.

Other than that, he’s not too busy.

Zemsky was interviewed by Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney.

Q – The Regional Economic Development Council’s plan submitted last fall had a lot of components. Which ones are most likely to shape the action plan for the governor’s $1 billion initiative?

A – “Smart growth, including pressure to accelerate brownfield redevelopment, and target industries.”

 Focusing development in the city is all well and good, but there aren’t many large shovel-ready sites and City Hall doesn’t even have a functioning economic development agency. How do you get around those problems? 

“The city currently has three Brownfield Opportunity Area studies under way to identify future redevelopment sites, thousands of acres.”

What are the odds we’ll see projects funded in other-ring suburbs and beyond?

“Highly probable.”

That seems to fly in the face of the commitment to smart growth. Care to explain?

“All the money won’t likely be spent in the city, especially when you consider funding local company growth initiatives.”

Tell me we’re not going to see $1 million per job subsidies.

“We aren’t going to see $1 million per job subsidies.”

Cite a major development project of the last five to 10 years that you think is in keeping with the thinking behind the governor’s proposal.

“The recent announcements regarding Nanotech investments in Albany.”

How about a project, or type of project, that is out of step? 

“I don’t think rural data centers will float this boat.”

A lot of experts are saying that trying to lure companies from out of town is not a cost-effective approach, that helping employers already here and engaged in one of our established clusters is the way to go. But the governor’s comments suggest he’s focused on recruiting new companies into the region. Are we hearing him correctly? What do you think the approach ought to be?

“Our Regional Economic Development Council plan lays out our approach and the state has rewarded our planning, in my opinion. I believe the intention of the $1 billion is focused more specifically on leveraging private sector investment.

“I think we have been focusing too much on assuming the details of what the governor means. What he means is he wants to support a well thought out plan to substantively move the needle in our economic development efforts, and he wants to make sure we leverage the state’s money to incentivize considerably more private sector investment per job creation.

“The focus is on significant sustainable job creation, be it from within or outside.”

The governor seems keen on investing in clusters, which a lot of experts say is the way to go. What clusters strike you as leading candidates?

“Advanced manufacturing,  agriculture and food processing, bi-national logistics, life sciences, professional services, energy.”

The prospect of $1 billion in incentives begs the question – are subsidies the smart way to revitalize the region’s economy? Some experts I interviewed said the skill of the workforce and the region’s quality of life is far more important than subsidies, as companies are increasing migrating to communities that attract the so-called ‘creative class.’ Others contend the key is making the area more conductive to entrepreneurs and small business. What do you say to that? 

“Your two propositions above do not strike me as mutually exclusive.

“Our plan has three major thrusts; smart growth which speaks to the issues of quality of life and appealing to the creative class above, workforce development, and entrepreneurship.

“Our response to the governor’s challenge will either enhance or supplement these emphasis areas but will certainly not detract from them.”

There’s a well-documented lack of venture capital for start ups and expanding businesses, not just in the Buffalo area, but throughout upstate. Why isn’t this being mentioned by the governor and his people when they talk about his initiative?

“The state just launched a new seed capital fund, Innovate NY. They recognize this problem, especially in upstate.”

What’s the process to determine the strategy going forward?

“We will work with the administration and their/our consultants in conjunction with our REDC team to develop a strategy in the months ahead building on the REDC plan, and the lessons learned from recruiting businesses during the past many years to our region. We expect there will be broad business and public engagement during this process.”

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