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Withering under Wilmers

The New York Observer has an interesting read on what it says is the drift of the Empire State Development Corp. under M&T honcho Bob Wilmers.

The story describes ESD as ...

... a once powerful state agency that was a driving force for the agendas of the last two governors. Now, more than a year into the Paterson administration and half a year since Wall Street’s collapse, Mr. Wilmers and his CEO, Marisa Lago, have a relationship marked by infighting, according to numerous people familiar with the situation; marquee projects are stalled or dramatically scaled back; and upstate business groups haven’t seen funding levels they once expected.

More generally, the economic development agenda in the state seems murky, something that many business leaders and others who deal with the ESDC attribute to both the state’s fiscal crisis and to a lack of clear, visible leadership and prioritization of economic development by any key figures in the Paterson administration. (State officials reject this notion, pointing to numerous projects and initiatives that have advanced despite enormous budget deficits and one of the worst recessions in decades.)

Deeper into the story ...

In terms of management at ESDC, numerous executives and others who deal with the agency said that power seemed to be bifurcated—or unclearly delegated—between Mr. Wilmers, who is an unpaid, part-time chairman given his full-time job at M&T Bank, and Ms. Lago, who is based in New York City. (M&T has received incentives through ESDC. The Paterson administration has said Mr. Wilmers would recuse himself from specific decisions affecting his company, though he has been active in guiding policy on reforming incentives.)

The two have a rancorous, strained relationship, causing frustration for Ms. Lago, according to numerous people who have discussed the issue with her. The two have also clashed over hiring, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation, as ESDC has not yet hired that downstate president, a position Mr. Wilmers said in July he expected to create. At least four candidates have been interviewed, with none yet hired, in what apparently involves a rigorous vetting operation, complete with a psychological test.

Still deeper ...

Multiple business leaders and others who deal with the ESDC said that in New York City and elsewhere in the downstate region, the agency does not seem to have adopted a new approach amid the recession. The ESDC’s downstate efforts have generally been defined by a series of high-profile private and public development projects—Atlantic Yards, the expansion of Penn Station—many of which have been stalled.

“I think it is fair to say that if ESDC has a plan for economic development, nobody downstate knows what it is,” said a leader of a downstate economic development organization who interacts with the ESDC.

And among upstate business group leaders, there is frustration with the level of funding for development efforts, and the length of time taken to release $120 million in previously allocated funds that were announced by the Spitzer administration.

This is not what many folks in WNY had in mind when they hailed Wilmers' appointment last year.




 

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Economic Development
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