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With regional economic councils, are there really any losers?

Architecturally Speaking
Rochester Business Journal
January 27, 2012

In the design profession, we often find ourselves on the front lines for new economic initiatives involving public funds. We help our institutional and business clients give form to their vision. Then we communicate the vision graphically to stakeholders and funding agencies so visions can become plans and plans become projects—creating both construction jobs and longer-term employment.

While our business and institutional clients typically lead the way, government support for potentially transformative projects is sometimes the key to a higher level of impact. Our community has numerous examples of this. In fact, these incentives have become part of the marketplace, helping to drive business decisions and even steering political campaigns.

In July, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he and his administration would be retooling the approach to statewide economic development. Ten regional economic development councils were established to create strategic plans. The intent was for these plans to provide a consensus-driven road map for the investment of public funds. This new approach represented a fundamental shift in how funding is allocated.

Along with my colleagues in the design profession, I have been following this new regionally based initiative with keen interest. We make it our business to understand the rules by which awards are made so that our clients can be successful and our community can flourish. Previously we had grown accustomed to mechanisms that tended to favor being very focused on a particular project’s strength in matching a state funding agency’s mandate. Sometimes this would involve collaboration with a partnering sponsor, but seldom would this be coordinated regionwide. The new approach, requiring all applications for state economic development assistance to be regionally based, was a lightning strike.

Refreshing and at the same time challenging, the idea of competing for funding based on a collaborative regional vision was one that energized a broad spectrum of business and institutional interests across the state. Although it may be hard to measure, this coming together of business and institutional leadership in leveraging region-specific strengths may have been one of the most valuable outcomes. Public comments of both Joel Seligman and Danny Wegman in the wake of the award announcements echo this. The sense of regional awareness, collaboration and teamwork that our business and institutional leaders achieved appears to be as solid as one could imagine, given the short time.

Like many others in our community, I was surprised to hear that our region had not been selected for one of the top awards and the $40 million incentive that came with each. More perplexed than disappointed, I wondered how such a well-organized, consensus-driven “machine” did not rise to the top? After all, our region has doggedly persevered through recently tough challenges, emerging with a comparatively strong economy. One could easily argue that our region is the best investment.

The answer had to be in the approach; so I started a quick checklist:

1. Strong leadership and representation? Seligman, Wegman and top regional leaders working collaboratively and effectively. (check)

2. Well conceived and organized process? The governor’s initiative gained quick buy-in from each of the regions around the state. (check)

3. Commitment of time and effort from all participants? Uniformly high attendance for weekly council meetings during an intensive three-month period, with subcommittee meetings involving even more time and effort. (check)

4. Compelling vision and strategy? The “case statement” was extremely well-written, comprehensive and convincing. (check)

By all accounts we could not have been more effective in putting the proposal together.

We had the right people for the work. They were energized and committed, and they enunciated a clear, compelling vision and plan.

Theresa Mazzullo, chairwoman of the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency, was co-leader of the entrepreneurship and innovation task force. She commented, “This process was so well organized and well led. We ended up with a very strong strategic plan and were confident that it was well positioned to be among those selected.”

So what could have caused a proposal that should have garnered rave reviews to drift back to the middle of the pack?

Some have begun to question the underpinnings of the selection process. Government is, at its core, a political endeavor. It is difficult not to speculate that this influenced the final awards.

Lt. Gov. Bob Duffy was extraordinarily active during the regional planning process. He attended most of the meetings held across the state and made himself and his staff available as a continuing resource for questions.

Earlier this week I spoke with the lieutenant governor about the process. His perspective on the way things turned out reflects a longer view.

“I could not have been more proud of the talented leadership demonstrated in each of the 10 regions throughout this process,” he said. “Each strategic plan was truly excellent in its own way. The differences in scoring ended up being so small that the plans should be looked at more as a tightly bunched group.”

Duffy emphasized the value of the 10 regional strategic plans as a resource going forward. He also pointed to the increased sense of awareness and pride in who we are as a state and how valuable that is:

“We have taken huge steps toward eliminating the ‘upstate versus downstate’ conflict. Not only did we see strong business and institutional alliances demonstrated but also extraordinary bipartisan political efforts in many of the regions.”

In the coming days, the Finger Lakes council will be meeting with the governor’s office to review the selection process and our region’s submission in particular. Hopefully, members of the selection panel will be available to provide greater insight.

Every other aspect of this initiative appears to have been well received, resulting in a very solid foundation for future public investment. The emphasis on thinking broadly and in a more collegial way may yield very beneficial results. This spirit can be found throughout the Finger Lakes Region Strategic Plan, which will continue to strongly influence all funding applications originating within the region.

Hopefully this new way of doing business continues with a high level of commitment from our local leaders. The strategic economic development plans for each of the state’s regions have been published on line at Taken together, they are a truly impressive portrayal of our potential as a state.

Jim Durfee is vice president and design principal at Bergmann Associates. An architect and past president of American Institute of Architects-Rochester, he can be reached at (585) 232-5135 or

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