Buffalo businessman Howard Zemsky recently found himself in an unenviable position: explaining to a legislative panel in Albany Tesla’s disappointing job-creation figures at the million-square-foot centerpiece of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion,” while justifying $1.525 billion of incentives to lure Amazon to build a headquarters in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens.
Things haven’t gotten easier for Zemsky, President of New York’s Empire State Development agency, or his boss.
In what New York’s governor might consider his own “Valentine’s Day Massacre,” Amazon issued a February 14, 2019 statement expressing its decision “not to move forward” with its plan to construct 4 million square-feet of office space and bring 25,000 employees to NYC. The reason given: “… [A] number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project.” It was a mere three months earlier that Zemsky characterized the Amazon proposal as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” and expressed pride in bringing “the largest deal in ESD history” to our state.
In headier days (that is, prior to the Buffalo Billion bid-rigging scandal), Mr. Zemsky proudly instructed communities across our state to “learn the lesson of the Buffalo Billion,” and transform their economies to be self-sustaining “through real investments that actually create jobs.”
Ironically, there are important lessons for communities to learn (beyond the convictions of Buffalo’s Louis P. Ciminelli and SUNY Polytechnic Institute’s Alain Kaloyeros) from our governor’s handling of the Buffalo Billion and Amazon HQ2 project:
First, without the benefit of public comment and input from beyond his inner circle, Andrew Cuomo will miss the broader picture. With the Buffalo Billion, his administration poured $750 million into building the Western Hemisphere’s largest solar panel factory and filling it with sophisticated equipment, but failed to make certain that its tenants – initially SolarCity, now Tesla – were financially secure. With Amazon HQ2, Cuomo arrogantly made decisions that would impact an existing community for decades without seeking the perspective of local leaders and residents, choosing instead to secretly negotiate an agreement with Amazon. [See Memorandum of Understanding signed by Mr. Zemsky on behalf of Empire State Development: amazon – new-york-agreement 11-12-18.]
Second, Andrew Cuomo is willing to ignore state laws meant to protect the environment and character of existing communities. Despite an obligation to assess potential environmental impacts prior to approving funding for a project, members of the Public Authorities Control Board – all appointed by the governor – approved the first $118 million for RiverBend two months before the mandatory environmental review. Then, to ensure a “shovel in the ground” prior to the 2014 gubernatorial election, SUNY Poly, under the now-disgraced Kaloyeros, performed a perfunctory environmental assessment for this massive industrial facility without the benefit of an Environmental Impact Statement. [See RiverBend Negative Declaration 05-21-2014.]
To borrow a phrase from our governor, the Cuomo administration’s handling of both the RiverBend and Amazon HQ2 projects constitutes “governmental malpractice.”
With All Due Respect,