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Good Richie, Bad Richie

First, the Good Richie.

Richard Kessel, president of the New York Power Authority, was in town Tuesday to announce progress in his efforts to make Western New York a hub for wind energy. The authority is going to request proposals from developers to construct and operate one or more off-shore wind farms in Lakes Erie and/or Ontario.

Kessel 3That doesn't make the project a slam-dunk to happen, but it's a step forward, and if it happens, Western New York would be home to the first, or one of the first, off-shore wind projects in North America.

Western New York a leader. Now that would be a good thing.

Also good are provisions in the request for proposals that give bonus points to developers that would purchase goods and services from Western New York companies. That could help seed a wind-power industry here, drawing on the region's industrial capacity.

Then there's the Not So Good Richie.

You may recall that, back in April, when Congressman Brian Higgins called the authority out for continuing to pocket profits from the Niagara Power Project rather than sharing the wealth with the community from whence it came, Kessel surprised a lot of people by saying he was prepared to negotiate a deal to keep a significant share of the profits here to promote economic development.

Kessel said a deal would be reached over the summer.

There was no deal.

Kessel then said there would be a deal by the fall.

There was no deal.

Now, with Santa prepared to land in three weeks, Kessel said we'll see a deal no later than January.

We'll see.

Not only when, but how much, and for what.

In the meantime, tens of millions of dollars of profits that might otherwise be flowing to Western New York instead continue to make their way to NYPA headquarters in White Plains.

In other words, same old story.

Then there's Bad Richie.

You also may recall the investigation I did in 2007 that documented how NYPA is squandering much of the low-cost hydropower that is sold to local industries at a deep discount.

To refresh your memory:

Most of the power goes to a handful of companies that enjoy discounts that amount to some of the richest corporate subsidies in the nation, The News found.

Just two Niagara Falls chemical manufacturers -- Occidental and Olin -- get 29 percent of the low-cost industrial power earmarked for the region, although they employ only 1 percent of the workers of the 98 companies participating in the program. The discounted power last year saved Occidental and Olin an estimated $53 million, or an average of $126,155 per job.

And it doesn't stop there.

Dozens of other companies, The News found, receive subsidies considered excessive using benchmarks set by the federal government for several of its largest economic development programs.

Some of these industries have enjoyed generous subsidies for decades, thanks in part to what many say are outdated criteria that favor declining Cold War industries at the expense of new-economy enterprises.

Well, guess what, folks?

The contracts for most of this power are coming up on expiration, which could put it in play. But no. The Power Authority, under Kessel's leadership, plans on giving new contracts to most, if not all, of the current recipients.

"I expect most everybody will be re-upped," Kessel said Tuesday.

In other words, short of a rebellion, NYPA plans to continue to squander the most costly, and important, economic development tool this region has at its disposal. Better to prop up stagnant, sometimes dying industries, than to invest in the future.

This decision comes on the heels of NYPA's decision to give a big allocation of power to Yahoo! worth discounts of more than $800,000 per job.  A mind-boggling number -- wouldn't you say? -- for a project that likely will have little spin-off benefits, unless you include the photo op for politicians who flew in to attend the press conference called to formally announce the deal.

Yahoo! press conference

Folks, Richie Kessel has come to Western New York a lot more than his predecessors. He's slapped a lot of backs, said a lot of things we wanted to hear, even opened a satellite office of sorts in the Cobblestone District.

But the substance Kessel's actions isn't all that different from that of his predecessors. Not at least on the issues that are really important to this region. Nope, it's a continuation of the failed policies of the past.

Profits from the Niagara Power Project continue to flow to Albany, rather than into this community, and our share of the cheap power generated in Lewiston will continue to be used to prop up declining industries, some of which have been gorging at the public trough since JFK was president.

Yeah, Kessel's if-come wind project would be a good thing. But it doesn't make up for the continuation of policies that have hurt this region for a generation.

There's a better way, but Richie and Co. aren't interested.

As I reported two years ago:

“The potential of close to a quarter of a billion dollars of power a year is incredible. We’ve just been very short-sighted about the way we’ve looked at the potential,” said Sam Cole, a University at Buffalo professor who studied the impact of hydropower for the New York Power Authority.

“Given the political will, and efficient use of the power, practically every dream Western New Yorkers have for the recovery of the region could be fulfilled.”

Political will = efficient use of power = economic recovery?

Now that, folks, is a dream, unless and until people in this town wake up.

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Economic Development | New York Power Authority
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