ALBANY—As they compete for up to $500 million being offered by state officials in an economic development contest, several upstate business leaders are planning to hire private consultants to help them craft their bids.

The development contest was panned by critics on both the left and right who questioned its necessity and worried it could spark a sort of geographic arms race. A spokesman for Empire State Development said the state was not encouraging or providing funding for the consultants, but it’s not prohibiting them, either.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, included $1.5 billion for the funding competition in the just-passed state budget.Despite grumbling from rank-and-file lawmakers and some local officials, the money will be doled out to implement bids in three regions north of the Bronx and east of Buffalo. Three regions will receive $500 million over five years in a process Cuomo has branded the Upstate Revitalization Initiative but that critics call the Upstate Hunger Games.

The Cuomo-created set of regional economic development councils—which submit plans for state funding for various projects, some of which is awarded competitively—will develop the plans. The governor presented his “Buffalo Billion” investment as a model for the new competition, and council members around the state have been dissecting its strategy for tips on how they can secure their own cash.

“Buffalo hired McKinsey,” said one regional council member, who asked not to be identified, referring to the international consulting firm. “So now everyone’s asking, should we hire McKinsey?”

The economic development council in central New York has already set aside $50,000 through the Onondaga County Industrial Development Authority to hire a similar consulting firm that will “assist with research, data evaluation, and market/economic analysis,” said Elle Hanna, a spokeswoman for CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity, a business group that is a leader of the regional council.

The Finger Lakes council, which encompasses Rochester, is considering the same, according to Bob Duffy, the former lieutenant governor and head of the Rochester Business Alliance.

“The consultants are a good idea for all of the competing regions because, if they help everyone put together the best plan for investment, it benefits the region and New York,” he wrote in an email.

Duffy said that no final decision had been made. Hanna said “the plan itself will be prepared locally and driven by regional priorities.”

Empire State Development spokesman Jason Conwall said the competing regions would be able to draw on his agency and others in formulating their plans.

“For the seven regions competing in the Upstate Revitalization Initiative this year, E.S.D. has also made available the University at Buffalo Research Institute to provide research, data analysis, and general assistance in preparing the plans,” he said. “Since the beginning, we’ve made it clear that no state funding would be provided for the use of outside consultants during the Regional Council process. The same applies for the Upstate Revitalization Initiative.”

E.J. McMahon, director of the fiscally conservative Empire Center for Public Policy, wondered why consultants would be needed after the councils—composed of Cuomo-appointed machers of business and higher education in a given region—had been talking, planning and recommending projects for four years. He said the movement was “rather pathetic, but it’s a natural outgrowth of the governor’s approach.”

Cuomo has repeatedly defended his preference for funding competitions, saying it brings everyone’s best product forward. Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul also assuaged lawmakers that there would be no losers in the process, since the four non-winning regions would be winners in the regular regional council awards.

Ron Deutsch, head of the labor-backed Fiscal Policy Institute, said it would be more of a race to the bottom.

“It looks like the Hunger Games competition has begun as REDCs are looking to bring in ‘designated hitters,’” he said. “Given how much money is at stake in this competition it seems like every region wants to make sure they have a leg up on their neighbors. I hope this does not turn into more of a consultants competition than one based on the economic needs of regions.”

© 2015 Capital New York

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