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A good first impression

Brian_reilly_3 I had my first in-depth interview Wednesday with Brian Reilly, the city's new commissioner of economic development. Seems like a sharp fellow. Definitely energetic.

What's to like:

He's cut his teeth elsewhere - Milwaukee and Cleveland.

He's got experience in green economic development.

And he's full of ideas.

What he said of particular interest:

He's added a focus on attracting companies to the city and helping those already here expand. Should help to make the city more business friendly.

He's talking to the other economic development players on a regular basis, folks like the IDAs and state Empire Development Corp.

He wants to cluster neighborhood investments, which would be a real departure from the scatter-shot approach that goes back at least as far as Jimmy Griffin.

He's trying to market brownfields in South Buffalo, including the old Republic Steel site, as a renewable energy and technology corridor. Also working with Lackawanna to include the Bethlehem Steel site. Selling points: lots of land and lake and highway access. And, I found out, home to a huge 42-inch water main capable of pumping as much water in a day as the rest of the city consumes. (Companies in the water-parched south and southwest, are you listening?)

All this said, it's one thing to be smart and full of ideas, another to be effective.

Does he have what it takes to succeed in the political waters of City Hall, to change its long-standing approach to economic development, which I'll oversimplify as "indiscriminate subsidies, often used as pork barrel."

I've spoken with some other folks who have had dealings with Reilly, and some of them, while they find him bright, said he sometimes comes off as overly defensive. That's a common criticism of the administration he works for. Here's hoping he's better at dealing with the rabble than some of his superiors.

We hardly knew ye

Today is Roger Kelley's last day at the helm of the New York Power Authority. His resignation, demanded in June by Gov. David Paterson, takes effect at midnight.

I've taken Kelley to task a little bit for not doing more for Western New York during his year as CEO. He is from Clarence, and quite a few folks thought he'd do more for the hometown than he has.

At the same time, many of the people I respect in the NYPA bureaucracy hold Kelley in high regard and are sorry to see him leave. They consider him a knowledgeable professional holding a job that too often in the past has been held by a  politico. And could be again.

As Kelley exits, attention turns to his replacement, who the governor has yet to name. 

The answer is blowing in the wind

Texas billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens -- gotta love the name -- has launched a media savvy campaign to move the country away from oil to wind power. He sees the Midwest, from Texas to the Dakotas, as "the Saudi Arabia of wind power."

That might make Western New York, say, Kuwait. After all, we're the fourth windiest urban area in the nation.

Reports The Washington Post:

"Pickens has become an evangelist for wind power as a way to break the nation's dependence on foreign oil, launching an advertising blitz in which he warned: 'I've been an oilman all my life, but this is one emergency we can't drill our way out of.' "

The Pickens Plan envisions wind power producing 20 percent of the nation's electricity. It wouldn't be cheap -- with a pricetag of $1.2 trillion -- but Pickens notes that as things stand now, the U.S. will send $10 trillion overseas the next decade to buy oil.

The heart of his plan, according to muckraking blogger Phil Mattera, "is a call for large-scale expansion of wind energy to allow the country’s natural gas now being used for electricity generation to serve instead as a cleaner fuel for cars, trucks and buses." Mattera, in his Dirt Diggers Digest, notes that Pickens may have more than the national interest at heart: He also stands to make a lot of money.

Pickens is putting his money -- and he has lots of it -- where his mouth is. He is proceeding with plans to build the world's largest wind farm -- 2,700 turbines on some 200,000 acres in the Texas Panhandle -- that would provide enough electricity to power 1.3 million homes. Texas, in fact, is leading the nation in the development of wind power, as this Washington Post story details.

This Dallas Morning News story provides a good overview of what Pickens is up to. This New York Times editorial and op-ed piece isn't bad, either.

Success by Pickens can only help Western New York, given our wind resources. There's a small windmill farm on the Bethlehem Steel site and turbines scattered in assorted rural areas, but so far, we as a region have only scratched the surface. 

Of little use to Buffalo

Mike Clarke, one of region's bright lights on housing issues, reports some disappointing news related to the bill just passed by the Senate and House that provides, among other things, $4 billion to urban areas stressed by housing foreclosures.

Here's a story by and an analysis by Dealbreaker.

Passage of the bill had raised hope in some quarters that Buffalo could be in line for a decent amount of coin to help with its housing vacancy problem. Sen. Chuck Schumer said he expects to use the bill to help push for an additional $10 million for Buffalo to help with vacant housing, according to this report from a WGRZ-TV.

Clarke said he learned that the bill isn't designed to help cities with plain old vacancy problems, however.

Here's what Clarke, executive director of the Buffalo office of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., had to say:

"I just went through an exercise with our Federal policy people on the new legislation that passed the House, Senate and will get the president's signature. I asked about what the formula was for distribution of the money. They told me that HUD must devise a formula to be based off the criteria listed below: 

CRITERIA -- The funding formula required under paragraph (1) shall ensure that any amounts appropriated or otherwise made available under this section are allocated to States and units of general local government with the greatest need, as such need is determined in the discretion of the Secretary based on:
(A) the number and percentage of home foreclosures in each State or unit of general local government;
(B) the number and percentage of homes financed by a subprime mortgage related loan in each State or unit of general local government; and
(C) the number and percentage of homes in default or delinquency in each State or unit of general local government.

"I then asked if I read this correctly and that foreclosures and defaults will be what gives weight to the distributions. If so, it is possible that a city like Buffalo, where foreclosure has been a relatively smaller problem (so far anyway) than the large and increasing numbers of vacant houses, will see less than they would have hoped for.
"The answer was yes, unfortunately. Vacancy didn't make it into the formula."
To repeat: "Vacancy didn't make it into the formula."
Here is LISC's analysis of the bill.

What does Jim Pitts have to do with this?

Does Western New York have strong advocates on the governing board of the New York Power Authority?

We've got two members from WNY on NYPA's seven-member board of trustees, D. Patrick Curley, a Higgins guy, and Elise Cusack, a Reynolds gal.

Cusack has done nothing to rock the boat during her three years on the board. Heck, for a year she didn't even show up in person to attend meetings. Curley, who took office last fall, has been silent thus far, at least in public, although I hear he's not shy in the board room.

Cusack's term expires next year and her reappointment from a Democratic governor is, well, not gonna happen. A seat is opening up the end of this month with the resignation of Chairman Frank McCullough.

That leaves the prospect of another appointment from Western New York, if not this year, next. That got me thinking: Who would be an effective voice for WNY?

I think a handful of key criteria ought to be applied for prospective candidates:

They need to be smart.

They must be knowledgeable of power and/or economic development issues.

They must know how to operate in a political environment.

And, most importantly, they've got to be a strong advocate. We need one.

I went so far as to put together a list of 10 or so folks, mostly people I have dealt with while reporting on the Power Authority these past couple of years. There are a couple of intriguing possibilities.

One is Paul Dyster, the new mayor of Niagara Falls. Hizoner will probably grimace upon reading this, as he's beyond busy. But the guy is really smart on this stuff, and turning around Niagara Falls is going to require better use of the region's allocation of low-cost hydropower generated at the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston.

Appointment to the NYPA board would involve more work, more travel, to be sure. But the investment of time would yield more results than, say, dealing with the city zoning board. It would also give Dyster greater standing with elected officials and business leaders, not only in WNY, but throughout the state.

The other guy who comes to mind? Well, before I mention the name, I want those white business e-lites reading this post to sit down.

OK, ready?

James W. Pitts.

Yeah, Pitts.

When last seen, Pitts was being chased out of public office by the e-lites, and they almost certainly would object to his appointment. Then again, they've been largely missing in action when it comes to making a push to make better use of the authority's low-cost power to revitalize the regional economy.

No one questions Pitts' intelligence. He knows politics. He was light years ahead of most everyone locally in seeing the potential of green economic development, founding the Green Gold Development Corp. He runs his own development company now and does work in Niagara Falls, as well as Buffalo. He would bring diversity to a board, and organization, presently lacking it. (When I asked the Power Authority the last time it had a minority board membeer, the answwer I got back was "maybe never.")

Most importantly, Pitts has a track record of being a strong, effective advocate.

Think Pitts would take no for an answer when it comes to getting more for WNY from NYPA?

I think not.

What do you think? Anyone else comes to mind?

Dominos continue to fall

First, NYPA President and CEO Roger Kelley got the hook from David Paterson after just one year on the job. Now authority Chairman Frank McCullough is resigning despite having two years left on his term. No official reason has been stated as to why, but McCullough was known to be tight with Kelley.

Cause and effect? I don't know.

But I do know the governor is about to reshape NYPA. And how.

He'll pick Kelley's successor, which will be no doubt rubber stamped by the NYPA board.

He'll also have a big say in who becomes chairman.

And once the state Senate confirms two pending nominations, and another forthcoming to replace McCullough, board members appointed by Spitzer and Paterson will hold five of seven seats.

Numerous press reports have speculated that Richard Kessel, the former Long Island Power Authority chairman and CEO, will succeed Kelley. But that chatter has been going on for more than a month and the longer he's not appointed, the more likely it is that he won't.

He comes with some baggage - a reputation as being very political and an uneven tenure as boss of the Long Island Power Authority. And his appointment would probably set off some folks in WNY.

If you want to know more, read this and this story from Newsday and this broadside from the New York Post.

Quiniones_2Reading the tea leaves, I wonder if Gil Quiniones might end up with the job. He's an senior vice president at the authority.

Noteworthy: Shortly after Kelley announced his resignation, effective the end of this month, Quiniones was named interim chief operating officer. The last guy to hold the job was Tim Carey, who, a few months later, was hired as president and CEO in 2006. Hmmm.

From what I've heard, Quiniones has impressed since joining the authority less than a year ago. I've had a handful of dealings with him, first when he worked in a senior energy position in New York City government, and then with NYPA. He seemed to know his stuff. Whether he's qualified to run such a huge operation, I don't know.

As for chairman, there's a limited field to choose from, as three of seven board members are lame ducks, waiting to be replaced.

Michael Townsend will succeed McCullough on an interim basis, but he's a Pataki appointee and therefore probably out of the running. Ditto for Elise Cusack, who only has a year left on her term, anyway.

So, unless the chairman its going be be a newcomer, the competition is between D. Patrick Curley, a business consultant from Buffalo who is tight with Brian Higgins, and James Besha, an engineer from Albany. Both are Spitzer nominees, and, from what I hear, the loudest guys in the boardroom these days.

All this turnover on the board, and George Maziarz's role as gatekeeper of the Senate's confirmation process, presents an opportunity for bolstering WNY's clout on the NYPA board. I'll blog more on that tomorrow. So, as they say, stay tuned.

Regionalism is not a four-letter word

The curse of Buffalo - aside from Wide Right, No Goal and the never-ending saga of the Peace Bridge - is the 1,001 cities, towns, villages and school districts that dot the landscape and suck the life out of taxpayers.

OK, 1,001 is an exaggeration. But not much of one.

Take Cheektowaga, home to one mega-mall, five school districts, a town government and, if that's not enough, a village government (Sloan).

We may have built grain elevators a century or so ago, but since then, it's been mostly silos, in the form of one duplicating government entity after another. It's rooted in a political culture that values turf above all else.

That mindset is arguably on display involving a bill passed by the state Legislature that would establish a countywide land bank to manage and rehabilitate vacant properties. Abandoned properties are a huge problem in the city and a growing one in the suburbs.

Expert after expert say that's the way to go, that it's worked in other states. Given that nearly one in every four properties in the city is vacant, they insist that it's an especially smart move here.

Byron Brown, however, is dead set against the land bank bill. Usually, it's suburbanites who oppose regional cooperation with the city. This time, it's the other way around.

Brown wants to start with a city-only land bank. I guess he thinks the suburbs can wait on their vacant housing problem. Phil Fairbanks had a story about it in Sunday's paper.

As Brown sees it, it's a matter of accountability.

"This bill is bad for Buffalo," he wrote in a letter to Gov. Paterson in which he asked him to veto the legislation. "These properties need the direct management and local accountability of the City of Buffalo."

Is it about accountability or control?

"Control is clearly one of the motivations," said Aaron Bartley, of PUSH, or People United For Sustainable Housing.  "No matter what the structure of this land bank is, politicians will seek to control that structure."

Given the city's sorry track record managing and rehabilitating abandoned housing, Brown's argument has a hollow ring.

Jimmy Griffin, Tony Masiello and now Byron Brown have had their chance to deal with the problem. It's only gotten progressively worse. People like Bartley are saying "enough is enough."

The bill is on Paterson's desk to sign or veto.

"This is a governor who's driven by good government and good public policy," said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, the bill's prime sponsor. "I can't imagine a circumstance where he would veto this legislation."

We'll soon find out. 

Sanity on subsidies?

Paterson_2 David Paterson said something very interesting the other day regarding economic development in a meeting with The Buffalo News editorial board.

"Rather than throwing a billion dollars at some company to come in and create a certain amount of jobs, what we have to do is lower the business taxes and create the kind of environment in which business will flourish. and at that point the market will take over.

"That is not as enticing to public servants as these companies that come in and basically seduce you into giving taxpayer dollars away."

Maybe, just maybe, that foretells an effort to reform the myriad of susbsidy programs. Here in WNY they involve hundreds of millions of dollars a year in tax breaks, tax credits and discounted power. Not that the local economy has taken off as a result.

Reform would affect more than just economic development policy. There's a fiscal element, too. The Empire Zone program alone costs the state $600 million a year. That's no small consideration, given the state's fiscal condition.

An improved tool for Buffalo and Niagara Falls

The New York Times has a good read explaining the brownfields legislation just signed by Gov. Paterson. The new law has particular importance for Buffalo and Niagara Falls because of the preponderance of brownfields here.

Reports The Times:

"The measure is intended to reward developers for undertaking particularly demanding environmental cleanups, while imposing tighter controls on the tax breaks given for the structures to be built on a site ...

"While no inventory exists of brownfield sites in the state, the Department of Environmental Conservation said there could potentially be thousands ... In older cities like New York and Buffalo, much of the remaining undeveloped and vacant land has some level of contamination."

Business leadership that gets it

Andrew Rudnick and Company, please make note: The Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has organized its membership to promote sustainable business practices under its *Climate Protect Partnership. The objective is achieving "the complementary goals of reduced regional greenhouse gas emissions and increased economic competitiveness."

The New York Times environmental blog, dot earth had a recent post on the initiative.

"Over 150 companies, with something like 100,000 employees, have joined the group, which is committed to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from the metropolitan region of some 2 million people."

Bill Nowak and his Green Gold Development Corp. hold sessions for business the third Thursday of each month. The first three sessions have demonstrated there's a lot of green savvy in the community -- but not a lot of it in the region's largest companies, which pretty much continue doing business as though global warming isn't happening.

Upon seeing this post, Rick Reinhard, now with the Downtown DC Business Improvement District, sent me this update on what they're doing in Washington.

Seems to me that there's a leadership role for the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, or some other business organization, on this issue. There are some large companies in the region to learn from, including Ecology & Environment and HSBC, whose sustainability director for the U.S. is based out of Buffalo.

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