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Higgins' zig-zag, for better and worse

Hardly anyone, not even the folks at the New York Power Authority, are disagreeing with Brian Higgins these days regarding his assertion that Western New York ought to be getting more benefits from the Niagara Power Project. Not when it generates more low-cost electricity than all but a handful of hydropower plants in the nation, and not when it cleared $205 million last year, providing the authority with nearly 70 percent of its profits.

There is, however, lots to debate in the congressman's latest proposal on how NYPA ought to belly up to the bar.

Nearly two months ago, Higgins submitted a bill in Congress that would have required NYPA to return the proceeds from the sale of any unused power earmarked for local industry. It's been averaging about $40 million per in recent years. He got members of the local delegation to the State Legislature to sign on with companion legislation that was announced at a press conference Saturday.

The potential problem with that approach is that, if the authority were to do the right thing and allocate  the power, as it's been able to do for most of its 50-plus years, there wouldn't be any proceeds flowing back to WNY. The authority's decision last month, done at the behest of Gov. David Paterson, to give a big allotment of power to Yahoo!, even though the discounts add up to $810,000 per job, show just how easy it is to move power out the door if and when the authority is so inclined.

In a shift that Higgins doesn't see as such, the congressman now wants NYPA to return 36 percent of the plants profits to WNY for economic development purposes. Pegging a number to net revenue makes a lot more sense, in that the profits aren't going to go away.

Higgins calculates that his formula would generate about $65 million a year. My math tells me that, based on the profits last year, the number would be close to $74 million. Last year's profits were a record, however, and if you go back seven years -- low water levels in the two or three previous years resulted in abnormally low earnings -- the number would be $47.5 million.

Either way, a decent chunk of change.

How Higgins would spend the money, no matter the formula, is where the debate ought to begin.

For starters, he proposes that 60 percent of it come to Erie County. I think the folks in Niagara County, where the plant is located and where most of the low-cost hydropower is now allocated, might have something to say about that.

Also worth debate is how Higgins would spend the money in Erie County.

Some of it is earmarked for economic development that involves technology and good-paying jobs, primarily for the expansion of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Some of it is for infrastructure that would, among other things, help open the Outer Harbor for residential development.

But a lot of it would be targeted for capital improvements to cultural facilities, in an effort to promote the notion of cultural tourism. Money to add gallery space to the Albright-Knox, help finish the Darwin Martin House, get the restoration of the H.H. Richardson complex off the dime, build an exhibit at the Buffalo Zoo and spiff up the Tiff Nature Preserve. Stuff like that.

My question: Is this really the best and highest use of our economic development dollars?

Once you get past short-lived construction jobs, how many good-paying jobs would be created?

How many in the future economy involving technology, clean energy and other other green-collar jobs?

And what would the Higgins plan do to address poverty in Buffalo, the nation's third-poorest city, and Niagara Falls, which isn't much better off?

One could argue that much of what's on Higgins' list would return a relative modest bang for the buck.

I understand his reasoning -- it's work that's ready to go, which could boost what many consider to be an important component of the regional economy, and which could capitalize facilities that maybe haven't gotten enough TLC.

But I'm sorry, you lose me with $10 million to help relocate a golf course and restore South Park to its former glory.

It's not that nicer parks and bigger art galleries and improved zoo exhibits aren't good things.

But they're not going to generate a lot of jobs, and especially not good-paying ones.

And that's what the name of the game ought to be.


Economic Development | New York Power Authority
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