Last month, I was pleased to accept Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s appointment as co-chair of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council. The appointment came as Wegmans Food Markets Chairman Danny Wegman stepped down as co-chair after nearly seven stellar years of service. I now join Monroe Community College President Anne Kress as co-chair to continue the regional council’s important work.
During my stint as lieutenant governor, I had the pleasure of working with Governor Cuomo when he created the state’s 10 Regional Economic Development Councils. From my very first day working with him, Governor Cuomo came up with the regional council concept based upon his experience as Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary during the Clinton administration.
In my experience both as lieutenant governor and Rochester Chamber CEO, the regional councils have been a tremendous success not only in bringing focused state investment to the ten regions, but also by fostering cooperation within those regions. The councils have brought together leaders from business, academia, not-for-profits and government to work together on prioritizing needs in our region and areas for state attention.
Never in my career prior to the regional councils have I seen this done. These relationships have nothing to do with dollars and investments. They are about communication and teamwork. I have seen this firsthand in our Rochester and Finger Lakes region, and the other regions of New York.
In my current roles, I am certainly now partial to the success of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council. Upon its creation, the original leadership team of co-chairs Danny Wegman and University of Rochester President Joel Seligman did a superb job, along with the other members of the council and legions of volunteers on the committees that supported the work.
All of these volunteers are very busy professionals who give so much of their own time, talent and energy to help dramatically increase the growth and development of our region’s economy. If the volunteer co-chairs and committee members had drawn a salary, even minimum wage, I don’t believe New York State would have been able to pay them based upon the countless hours that they put into the process. These people represent the ultimate example of public service.
Anne Kress seamlessly picked up the baton as regional co-chair when Joel Seligman stepped down to focus his efforts on the University of Rochester. I look forward to working alongside Anne as we open the next chapter of the regional council with Danny Wegman stepping down. The three of them helped bring home nearly one billion dollars of state investment because of their work on the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council.
While I am happy to step in as co-chair, it is a virtual impossibility to replace a man of Danny Wegman’s stature. I have closely watched Danny lead in an exemplary fashion over the last seven years and am excited to do everything humanly possible to carry on the great work that Danny, Anne and Joel have done in joining this team. I pledge to bring my energy and passion for our region to the table as we move the Finger Lakes forward.
One challenge that we have is that we cannot say yes to everything. We need to look at the areas of investment that will have the highest return for our region not just today, but also tomorrow and into the future. Our number one goal is to increase jobs and economic vitality across the region. How we get there is the focus.
One of the things that struck me from the beginning of the regional councils is the criticism that they have drawn—even when proven successful in bringing meaningful investment to the Finger Lakes region and across the state. To me, this criticism seems to come from those who don’t fully understand what goes on within these councils. The collaboration, the teamwork, the scoring and the leaders across our entire region working together compose the best model I’ve ever seen.
The second part of the regional council criticism comes from those who have dubbed them “The Hunger Games.” When the councils started, I had a conversation with Governor Cuomo to express concern about competition among regions across the state. I did not want to see anyone lose. As chairman of the statewide councils, I felt like a proud parent and would hate to see anyone work hard and not win. The governor responded by telling me that without competition, the councils may not work as hard as they would in a competitive environment to create the best plans. Over the next four years, I found that the governor was exactly right. Competition is the single biggest motivator for the success of the regional council model.
The transition of leadership within the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council is a good time to celebrate its past success. It is also a good time to examine its future and how we can grow. I firmly believe in the “innovate or die” approach to finding the best solutions for success. Danny Wegman recently said that the best thing to happen to Wegmans was Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods. That move alone has sparked a whole new wave of energy and innovation at Wegmans.
New RIT President Dave Munson summed it up well in a recent conversation. He said, “We as a region can’t keep doing things a little better than others and expect to compete in the future. We have to do different things. What is the next big thing that we will be the only ones doing?”
While I don’t yet know what that next big thing is, I have the utmost confidence that with the talent, leadership, and passion that the Finger Lakes region has, we will, in the words of Danny Wegman, “focus and finish.”
Robert J. Duffy is president and CEO of Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at rduffy@GreaterRochesterChamber.com.