WNY Economic Development, Obstacles and Opportunities

24 Jan

Recently, I sat down with James Allen, Executive Director of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency (AIDA) to discuss economic development strategies in Western New York.  Mr. Allen is an advocate for strategic, regionalized, economic development strategies as well as increased outreach to Canadian economic development professionals.  Mr Allen believes that economic development in the new economy is a community-wide effort focused on people, knowledge, networks, and linking community assets.

Allen holds a Masters Degree in Urban Planning from the University at Buffalo (UB) and serves as an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the UB School of Architecture and Planning focusing on regional economic development planning and industrial development. He is also a Senior Fellow at the UB Regional Institute.

The Amherst IDA is one of six Industrial Development Agencies in Erie County, along with the Erie County IDA and four more in the suburban towns of Lancaster, Hamburg, Concord, Clarence.  There are also three IDAs in Niagara County, including the Niagara County IDA and two more in the towns of Lockport and Niagara.  IDAs are primarily chartered to provide state and local tax exemptions to businesses in order to attract or retain business in local communities and/or provide low cost loans to businesses.

There are also other organizations working towards economic development in WNY, including the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, and the vestigial tails of the former Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation; the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation and the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.

With a robust number of agencies, one would think that business in Western New York would be booming.  However, the region continues to struggle with development and businesses continue to move out of New York State.  It’s possible that the number of agencies chartered with economic development in the region is actually causing confusion and adding unnecessary red tape to projects.  The Partnership for the Public Good has done a load of research on the pros and cons of IDA consolidation and I encourage you to read it. While consolidation offers many benefits, IDAs in Erie County already have shared policy goals and incentives and work together using the Framework for Regional Growth.

Mr. Allen feels that significant tax and regulatory obstacles exist which prohibit growth in the region.  He points out a few specific regulations and some case studies which illustrate his point.


The regulatory and tax environment that Allen describes is a disincentive to larger companies looking to relocate to WNY and forces the IDAs to make large scale tax concessions in order to bring jobs to the region.  With those obstacles in place, a more focused approach on developing local companies and start-ups should be the primary objective.

The lower start-up costs associated with business overhead and access to a talented, but lower cost labor pool certainly give WNY an advantage over many other regions.  However, this approach is constrained by a general lack of local capital.  Allen points out that the lack of a pipeline of ideas and projects is a limiting factor in bringing external angel and venture capital to the region.


Finally, an under-explored opportunity is economic development outreach to Canadian companies.  Efforts by the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise have resulted in several companies doing just that, but the efforts should be municipally sponsored and much more robust.  Allen feels that we have a good start and we need to develop a regional framework for for cooperative economic development planning between governments.


“We need to determine what kind of future we want to create.” says Allen.  An encouraging development in this direction is Governor Cuomo’s announcement of ten regional economic councils in New York. The goal is to consolidate and transform the state’s fragmented economic development programs into a coordinated effort to grow regional industries, or “clusters.” This would allow for bottom-up planning rather than top down decision making from the Empire State Development Corporation.

14 Responses to “WNY Economic Development, Obstacles and Opportunities”

  1. STEEL January 24, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

    14 economic development groups and agencies! My God. Insanity.

  2. Gabe January 24, 2011 at 1:20 pm #

    Alright, the next person who uses the term “the new economy” needs to be pimpslapped. I remember when that was first thrown around in 1999 right before the dot-com crash. We should all know by now that gambling and speculation doesn’t create any real long-term wealth.

    Secondly, the fact that Amherst still has its own IDA is proof enough that this region still can’t get its collective shit together. Until Greater Buffalo can form a regional planning commission, we’re going to just keep getting more of the same FAIL and subsequent finger-pointing.

  3. BobbyCat January 24, 2011 at 2:03 pm #

    “Mr Allen believes that economic development in the new economy is a community-wide effort focused on people, knowledge, networks, and linking community assets.” OMG, did he really utter that boilerplate? Nooooo. Say it ain’t so. Who else would we focus on, if not “people”? Fish?

    Ditto what Steel said. 14 separate fiefdoms, errrrr… agencies? Fourteen? If the Governor makes 10 new regional agencies, will the old ones dry-up and go away?

    RE: SEQRA law. It does need revamping. The lead agency can simply declare a “negative declaration”, that is, declare that the project has no negative impacts, when in fact it has many. They can lie, and might get away with it. And yes, there is unnecessary duplication. If you attend the environmental hearings you find out that a foreign language is spoken there call enviro-speak, spoken only by planners, who get rich speaking in tongues that no one understands except other planners. (much like reading a legal brief) Regular folks are left clueless. Much to be done remaking environmental laws.

  4. Jim Allen January 24, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    As a point of clarification: there are two types of development; one is “people-based” and the other is “place-based.” I believe in people-based planning and development.
    Place-based development is of the “build it and they will come” mentality (some may even call it, the “silver bullet” approach). Place-based development believes that a new convention center, a new stadium, a pedestrian mall, a water park, etc., is the answer to all our prayers. I don’t agree.
    I believe and espouse an economic development approach that is based on, and focused on good schools, workforce training programs, technolgy transfer, small business and entrepreneurial development. That is considered a “people-based” approach.

  5. John Maguire January 24, 2011 at 3:11 pm #

    Mr. Allen, what do you have to say about Erie and Niagara County being home to so many separately chartered IDAs?  Is this normal for a region our size?  I mean, do you even see this as a problem?

    Are there other communities that we could use as models for streamlining the process without losing local input at the town levels? 

  6. BobbyCat January 24, 2011 at 4:28 pm #

    “People-based” vs “Place-based” development sounds like a distinction without a difference. Excuse me but it sounds like techno-speak or enviro-speak, a foreign tongue spoken by planners and by no one else. Is this meant to be understood by a general audience or by technocrats?

    What kind of development would be used in a city overlooking Niagara Falls? I think the answer jumps off the page. How bout on the shores of a Great Lake? Yes, of course the place dictates the development. Every community covets good schools and small businesses, etc. I think this is just common sense dressed up in a fancy wrapper.

    Alrighty then, what DO YOU DO with 14 separate development agencies, with more to come? How many bulls can you fit in the ring?

  7. Eisenbart January 24, 2011 at 6:36 pm #

    I’ve been reading up on Cuomos economic council and have read no where that it will axe any current local economic development agencies currently in place but rather organize them to communicate better with the state. So how does this help us here? Just another hurdle to leap if you are a business. Do we really want NYS to have any more say in local matters? I know I don’t.

  8. Mike In WNY January 25, 2011 at 11:43 am #

    significant tax and regulatory obstacles exist which prohibit growth in the region

    Fix that and eliminate all development agencies.

  9. lulu January 25, 2011 at 11:43 am #

    Until there is one IDA to represent all 8 counties of WNY there will continue to be parochial turf wars that compete rather than compliment efforts.

  10. Mac January 25, 2011 at 4:35 pm #

    the fact that someone with a masters in urban planning works for the *AMHERST* IDA is laughable. Is he blind? Amherst is what has been, and continues to be the prime example of what is wrong with Buffalo. It is unattractive, not walkable, and a textbook example of unsustainable sprawl. That anyone, let alone someone with a masters in urban planning, actively advocates for more crap to be built out there is just insanity. 

  11. Jim Allen January 26, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    Amherst’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan is focused on and committed to retrofitting the town to make it more walkable, pedestrian-friendly and compact. We have prioritized the older, more traditional business districts and are offering incentives to redevelop existing facilities and make them, to the extent possible, mixed use. The town has adopted form-based zoning codes to enable property owners to retrofit their buildings.
    We have been committed to regional planning for the past 20 years and have participated in the development of the Framework for Regional Growth, Blueprint Buffalo, a plan to deal with vacant properties in Buffalo, Tonawanda, Cheektowaga and Amherst, and we advocated for and helped develop a county-wide eligibility policy which all IDAs have agreed to abide by. We have been walking the walk (as well as talking the talk) for a regional strategy for economic development for years.

  12. Mac January 26, 2011 at 4:32 pm #

    “We have been walking the walk (as well as talking the talk) for a regional strategy for economic development for years”

    For years? As in like 3, right? 
    Because I could I probably rattle off 10 projects in Amherst alone that come nowhere near meeting form-based requirements.

    I may only have a bachelors in environmental science, but I know that allowing a new Wal-Mart to go up ~2 miles from an existing store located in a cluster f’ck of non-sensical sprawl, is just poor leadership and certainly won’t be earning you accolades with your colleagues. But I am sure that if that if, as you say, you are concerned with form-based zoning, walkability, and promoting mixed use in Amherst- the store will be built to the sidewalk, have parking in the back, adequate landscaping, not have any blank walls, and be 3-4 stories high, with one of those floors used for residential, am I correct? 

  13. Comic Relief January 27, 2011 at 11:41 am #

    Mac – you sound like a typical no it all urbanist that centers comments on how suburban communities such as Amherst are wrong and the reason your City is in the shape it is in. People need to get over municipal borders. We live, work, and recreate in a region. If you knew anything about urban planning, or the masters program at UB, you would note that urban is defined as settled by people, not City only.

    I don’t want to turn this into a pissing contest, but your comments and Jim Allen’s point to the need for a REAL regional entity and plan that gets around political b.s. that is holding this area back.


  1. Only Accidental Success « WNYMedia.net - January 26, 2011

    […] a plan, and there is $500M in new construction and 30 bio-tech companies in the Medical Corridor. Jim Allen, President of the Amherst IDA, who Chris Smith recently interviewed, has a plan. Hell, even PUSH, MAP and Urban Roots have plans, and localized impacts. The Mayor has […]

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