Kolb: Reality check for economic development effort is long overdue

Despite mounting concerns, federal inquiries and underwhelming performance results, Gov. Cuomo and his staff continue to tell New Yorkers that the state’s economic development programs are strong and successful. It’s one thing to stay “on message,” but it’s quite another to be stuck in a fantasy.

The administration’s continued denials of reality were on display this week in Albany. On Wednesday, Howard Zemsky, head of the Empire State Development Corp. (ESDC), testified before members of the Assembly Committee on Economic Development regarding START-UP NY and other state-administered job programs, amid concerns about everything from inflated job creation numbers to dismal returns on investment.

Mr. Zemsky compared the hearing to “torture” – not a surprising mindset from an administration that routinely fails to be transparent or forthcoming with information.


After Wednesday’s hearing, the governor said, “It is inarguable that the state’s economic development efforts are working.” Apparently the governor’s definition of “working” is dramatically different from mine. A quick look at some of the recent headlines generated by state-administered programs does not show an effective effort:

  • Initially touted as a “game changing” initiative, the START-UP NY program has produced a paltry 408 jobs in its first two years;
  • The state has spent $53 million in public money on advertising to promote START-UP NY, which amounts to $130,000 for every job created;
  • The “Buffalo Billion” project, aimed at revitalizing Buffalo and the surrounding municipalities, is under federal investigation by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara amid concerns of corruption and bid-rigging;
  • The governor has hired an outside investigator – which could cost taxpayers up to $450,000 – to review potential issues in the Buffalo Billion project and other economic development initiatives;
  • State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli recently released a scathing audit of ESDC’s Excelsior Jobs Program, chastising the agency for failing to verify if companies have met job-creation obligations to receive tax breaks; the audit also reveals that ESDC lowered job-creation figures for companies in order to maintain eligibility for tax breaks;
  • The attorney general’s office is investigating SUNY Polytechnic Institute’s dormitory project alleged bid-rigging; and
  • Near Syracuse, payments to contractors and vendors on yet another SUNY Polytechnic Institute project have been delayed at a state-funded manufacturing plant.

It is no wonder that Assembly members from both sides of the political aisle expressed skepticism with the performance and processes of the state’s economic development programs. These are some of the reasons why the Assembly Minority Conference has sponsored legislation (A.10531, Oaks) that dramatically increases the level of accountability, transparency and efficiency coming from economic development agencies.


The governor and his staff have expressed pride and promise in their initiatives, even in the face of mounting criticism and chaos. But, the promotional tour needs to end. New Yorkers deal with reality, not perceptions.

For years, New York taxpayers have listened to deceptive rhetoric insisting things are far better than reality. It is time for a complete overhaul of the governor’s headline-grabbing policies, which are almost always aimed at boosting his reputation rather than the state’s economy. The people elected public servants to work to promote their interests, not spend their hard-earned money on gimmicks and games.

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