It’s not just the money.
That might be the key message Howard Zemsky brought to Rochester this week. The Empire State Development Corp. chief and commissioner of the state’s Department of Economic Development told those gathered at the Rochester Business Journal’s Power Breakfast on Tuesday that an influx of state funds alone will not transform a regional economy. Strategic planning and vision are equally important.
Mr. Zemsky speaks from experience. He has served as co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council for four years and has been closely involved in the Buffalo Billion revitalization initiative.
He also has spent more than a decade working to revitalize the Larkin Historic District in Buffalo, a piece of the city’s turnaround story. That rebound, he said, has come after decades of decline and is “indescribably improbable.”
Some skeptics might argue that Buffalo’s new vitality is more show than substance. In fact, the economic data are mixed. Buffalo’s metropolitan unemployment rate in May fell to 5.3 percent from 6 percent a year earlier, but it’s still 2 points higher than Monroe County’s rate. And the Brookings Institution’s July Metro Monitor report put Buffalo at 81st among the nation’s 100 largest metro areas for its economic performance since 2009—in the bottom quintile (but better than Rochester’s 96th ranking).
Buffalo’s job-creation numbers, however, clearly are on the upswing. In the 12-month period ended in May, the Buffalo-Niagara Falls region posted a 2.8 percent increase in private-sector jobs; that outpaced both Rochester (1.6 percent) and the nation as a whole (2.6 percent).
Mr. Zemsky noted that the Rochester-Finger Lakes region has an impressive array of assets including its higher education institutions, and a high level of collaboration.
Now, as the region competes for up to $500 million in Upstate Revitalization Initiative funds, it should become clear whether we also have the boldness and vision to bring about transformative change.
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