Zemsky pressed on Buffalo Billion projects

Howard Zemsky, the state’s economic development czar, told state Assembly members Monday that state officials are pushing IBM to create more high-tech jobs in Buffalo.

“The kinds of jobs that we’re going to see at the IBM center are not going to continue to be call center jobs,” Zemsky said.

The state pledged $55 million to renovate and equipment the six floors of Key Center’s south tower to lure IBM here on the promise of creating good-paying, high-tech jobs. But, as Investigative Post reported last week, many of the employees at the company’s office downtown work call center jobs for modest pay and benefits. Most of them aren’t employed by IBM, but by staffing agencies and subcontractors.

“Is this what qualifies as high-tech jobs?” Assemblyman Raymond Walter, R-Amherst, asked Zemsky.

While acknowledging that much of the hiring to date has been for call center jobs, Zemsky said his agency has had “productive conversations” with IBM about “upping the types of technology and innovation jobs at the center”– “the kinds of jobs,” he said, “we’d all imagined.”

Zemsky conceded, though, that IBM’s agreement with the state specifies only the overall number of jobs the company must create – 500 by 2021 – not the kinds of jobs or how much they pay.

Some of the call center jobs are costing state taxpayers twice over. On top of the Buffalo Billion funding, IBM has a multi-million dollar five-year state contract to provide an IT help desk for state agencies.

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Lawmakers also pressed Zemsky on the track record of the 43North business plan competition, in light of Investigative Post’s reporting that three-quarters of the companies that come to Buffalo after winning leave once their mandatory year here is up.

Changes to the competition’s format, like requiring companies to relocate to Western New York for longer than a year, are under “active discussion,” Zemsky said.

“It’s fair to make some criticisms but also to point out these programs have had a profound impact,” he said, arguing that upstate’s struggling economy called for “different and unique approaches to economic development.”