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Three regions win $500 million each in upstate economic development competition

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the regional economic development competition awards in Albany Thursday.

Three of seven regions in upstate New York were awarded $500 million dollars each in economic development money, in a contest by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that critics have called the “hunger games.”

The annual awards ceremony took on a game show atmosphere, with lots of slick videos, and an enthusiastic announcer.

The three winning regions Rochester-Finger Lakes, central New York, and the Southern Tier, each received $500 million each in economic development money, phased in over a five-year period.

University of Rochester president and Finger Lakes Council Co-Chair Joel Seligman says he thought his region had a good chance, but wasn’t counting on it in advance.  

“I am a lawyer and I learned long ago you don’t exhale until the jury comes back,” said Seligman “I was thrilled. It’s terrific!”

Those who did not win the top tier of prize money did get funding from the regular annual regional economic development awards.

In last place was Buffalo and western New York, which got $83.9 million. But the region has already been the recipient of a billion dollars in economic aid. New York City, where the economy is much better than the rest of the state, got just over $84 billion. The North Country received just over $85 million. In the upper tier of the also-ran category , the Mohawk Valley Region was awarded over $100 million, the Capital Region got $98 million, and the Mid-Hudson received $90.4 million.

Empire State Development Chair Howard Zemsky, whose agency judged the entries, says there really are no losers, though. He points out that even the recipient who received the lowest amount got more than the top winners in the regional economic development awards last year.  

“I love the way this works,” Zemsky said. “I really don’t think anyone here is a loser.”  

Zemsky says the competition only made the regions’ presentations better, and more sharply focused.

And Cuomo announced that the regions that did not win the top competition will get a sweetener in his state budget plan in January.

“We will allocate an additional $50 million to those four regions,” Cuomo said. “Because there are no bad proposals in these applications.”

There were a few lone voices of dissent over the competition, which critics have called the "Hunger Games," after the popular movie about a fight-to-the-death competition among young people in a futuristic dystopia.  The leader of the Assembly Republicans, Brian Kolb,  said in a statement that “a grant program that pits upstate regions against each other is not a catalyst for sustained revitalization."

And he said the winners were hand picked by the governor, with little evidence that “lofty job-creation promises have been kept.”

Empire State Development officials have countered that, under the program, 150,000 jobs have been created.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.