September 28, 2011

At Cornell, Skorton Leads Regional Development Council

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Hoping that local leaders can pull New York State out of the worst recession in recent memory, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) tasked 10 newly-created regional development councils with crafting solutions to spark economic growth.

The Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council — co-chaired by President David Skorton and comprised of high-ranking administrators in government, business and higher education — began the process of determining the best job-generating proposals on Cornell’s campus Wednesday.

Up for grabs, members of the council say, is not just the $1 billion Cuomo has budgeted to award to the best regional growth proposals, but the future fiscal health of New York State.

“This is very, very important because what’s at stake here is the future of this whole part of the state and the state in general,” said Skorton, who chairs the council along with Tom Tranter, president and CEO of Corning Enterprises. The regional council includes Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca, and its members include the President of Binghamton University, the Mayor of Ithaca and the Vice President of Lockheed Martin Systems Integration.

Susan Payne, a facilitator with the Southern Tier Council, presented 18 projects already chosen by the council for consideration in its final application during the part of Wednesday’s meeting open to the public. Afterward, members of the council began discussing these options in greater depth at a closed meeting.

Among other fields, the 18 projects were grouped into categories such as transportation, infrastructure, energy, hospitality, health care and entrepreneurship. Payne outlined proposals such as creating a “virtual incubation and entrepreneur development center” and expanding a “ceramics corridor incubator,” citing the potential benefits from each idea.

Throughout the meeting and at a subsequent press conference, New York State Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy exuded optimism that the councils’ recommendations would prove successful. Duffy is overseeing the regional economic committees and will oversee a state-wide council comprised of the regional co-chairs.

“It’s coming together — this is what’s going to change New York State … When it’s all said and done, I think the public is going to be very proud,” Duffy said. “Things are changing, and [they are] changing because people like this team are working together.”

Duffy added that much progress has been made already, saying “it is beyond exciting watching what’s happening.”

Skorton struck a slightly more cautious note than Duffy, saying that it was too early to estimate the efficacy of the councils.

“As excited as we are about the process … the real answer to how this is working is going to have to wait a couple years,” Skorton said. “Because if this is all working correctly, then a couple years from now you’ll start to see the sort of changes where the ships are rising … I think the last analysis will take a bit of time.”

Still, Skorton praised the proposals that have already come to the council for consideration.

“[The proposals] are a wide range and touch the gamut of economic opportunities — and the tough part is going to be prioritizing in each council,” Skorton said. “I’m going to predict [there] are going to be a lot of good alternatives. And so the outcome remains to be seen, but the process has been robust, honest and public in nature.”

Duffy also emphasized the centrality of higher education institutions in the state-wide initiative, noting that each of the 10 regional economic councils is receiving input from at least one university or college. Noting Cornell’s status as a top employer in the state, Duffy said that the University in particular will be key to spurring economic development.

“We have one of the greatest higher education institutions anywhere in this country, anywhere in this globe,” he said. “To have Cornell, to have President David Skorton take his time … just reinforces how important this really is.”

Skorton said that the University stands to have much to gain from the success of the councils’ work. The state’s budget crisis has slashed funding for Cornell’s contract colleges by 30 percent over the last four years, which, Skorton said, has in part triggered expenditure reductions, such as reducing support staff, at Cornell.

“I think these are two sides of the same coin,” Skorton said of state budget cuts to Cornell and Cuomo’s investment in economic growth. “Either in personal level or business or family or running state or university, in order to get out of that difficulty have to do two things: You have to cut expenses and you have to increase revenue.”

Original Author: Jeff Stein