Federal Funds May Help Spur Tech, Transportation Innovation

Western New York officials hope that federal funding from the Innovation and Competition Act, the proposed infrastructure package and from stimulus relief funds would be used to develop tech hubs and revitalize transportation networks.

(TNS) — Western New York is angling for a wave of federal funding that could turbocharge innovation and reshape the region's transportation networks.

Exactly how much money will flow into the region depends on what emerges from lawmakers' negotiations in Washington, D.C. But significant dollars are either a possibility or already promised:

—The proposed U.S. Innovation and Competition Act calls for $10 billion that would be split among 18 regional "tech hubs" selected around the country. The Buffalo- Rochester region is pushing to become one of those hubs, although competition for those centers will be intense.

—A federal infrastructure bill — President Biden has proposed a $1 trillion package — could fund long-discussed projects involving the Skyway, the Kensington Expressway and the Scajaquada Expressway.

—About $823 million in federal stimulus money is being directed to the eight-county region, including $331 million for the City of Buffalo.

The effect on the region could be far reaching, depending on whether those funds materialize and how they are used.

"If we're going to improve industry here, always traditional infrastructure goes hand in hand with the kind of cutting-edge science and innovation that we've done here," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who is pushing the tech hub legislation.

The potential for massive tech and infrastructure dollars for Western New York, on top of the stimulus money already committed to the region, could lead to "a real acceleration of the economy," said Dottie Gallagher, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership's president and CEO.

"If we got it all, it would be transformational," Gallagher said. "We have to really work together as a community to make sure we're taking advantage of it."

Schumer predicted the Senate within the next several days will pass the legislation that calls for the tech hubs.

Of course, that bill still has to cross the legislative finish line. On top of that, the Buffalo- Rochester region would have to be chosen as one of those 18 locations.

But the local push has significant allies. Schumer, the Senate majority leader, pledged to use his political clout on behalf of a Buffalo- Rochester bid. And the Buffalo and Rochester business communities — including economic powerhouses M&T Bank and the University at Buffalo — are ready to rally around the idea.

The potential new influx of funds for infrastructure and tech investment would build on other kinds of investments made in the past several years, including the Buffalo Billion programs, said A.J. Baynes, president and CEO of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce.

Baynes pointed to other investments in the past decade — such as Canalside and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus — that have also laid the foundation. Meanwhile, out-of-town developers like Douglas Jemal have taken notice, buying and redeveloping properties here, he said.

"This will only add to spurring the growth in this community," Baynes said.

Tech Talk



If the Buffalo- Rochester area is chosen for a tech hub, Schumer envisions funds flowing to universities like UB to promote research that fosters economic development, as well as bolstering private-sector innovation.

The purpose of the bill is to promote growth outside of tech hotbeds in regions that "could do great things in tech if given the opportunity, if given the focus," Schumer said. By design, the hubs would be dispersed geographically.

"We don't want just New York City, San Francisco and Boston to get all these jobs," Schumer said. "We've got to share the wealth and spread it out."

Elected officials and business leaders say there are significant assets the Buffalo- Rochester region can use to make its case.

"It shouldn't be that hard of a sale, because we already have such great building blocks," Schumer said.

M&T Bank recently opened its own $58 million "tech hub" — not to be confused with the proposed federal program under consideration — inside Seneca One tower. M&T says it wants to promote tech job growth, innovation and collaboration, beyond just its business operations. One element is the Tech Academy, which aims to train a new generation of tech workers.

UB is another vital part of the effort to make the Buffalo- Rochester area one of the 18 regional tech hubs. As one example of the university's impact, UB launched a $32 million initiative called the Innovation Hub, which includes a $7 million downtown incubator for startups.

And 43North is promoting startup growth through its program. One of the past winners of its business plan competition, ACV Auctions, just went public, and has turned into a homegrown startup star.

Getting selected as one of a handful of regions for a tech hub "automatically raises your profile," Baynes said. "That puts eyes on your city, so people start to look at you a little bit differently."

William Maggio, chairman of the 43North Foundation and managing partner at Lorraine Capital, said it is "only logical" that Buffalo and Rochester look for more ways to collaborate on initiatives like a tech hub.

"I think it's extraordinarily powerful for us as a region to think about UB, and ( Rochester Institute of Technology) and the University of Rochester coming together, their corporate community, our corporate community, their technical assets, our technical assets," he said. "I think it's a very, very powerful story."

Maggio noted how startup ecosystems in other parts of the country — such as Silicon Valley, Atlanta, and Boston — thrive when they are built around universities. Buffalo and Rochester have those resources, too, he said.

"They're literally an hour apart from each other," Maggio said.

That Thruway collaboration will be key to Buffalo and Rochester getting selected as a tech hub, Maggio said.

"To me, the ability to accelerate what both regions know has to happen for us in order to be economically competitive going forward in the future. It's a higher probability of a more accelerated, positive outcome if we do this together," he said. "And that's what everybody's working on to try to make happen."

Infrastructure Ideas



The president's infrastructure bill creates the possibility of dollars to help fund long-talked-about projects in the region. Biden has reduced the size of the bill to $1 trillion from $2.3 trillion. House Democrats have put forward a $547 billion plan to invest specifically in roads, public transit and rail over the next five years, and containing some elements of the broader infrastructure package Biden has proposed.

"There's absolutely no doubt that there is a desperate need for a significant investment around the infrastructure of this community," Maggio said, referring to roads as well as tech infrastructure like 5G.

Large-scale infrastructure projects could have an impact both through the jobs they would create in construction, as well as by reshaping transportation networks for future generations.

Baynes said dollars from the infrastructure bill would help transportation projects finally move beyond the study stage, and have a meaningful effect.

"We have harsh winters in the Northeast, which leads to a bigger drain on our infrastructure," he said. "If you have a good infrastructure, you can build around it."

But the region would still need to reach consensus about which infrastructure projects to tackle, and what the priorities are.

"I think what has to happen, that hasn't happened in the past, is that the politicians and the private sector and the community at large need to work together to better understand how those funds are going to be spent in the community," Maggio said. "It can't be a situation where we got $300 million and then three years later, no one knows where it went."



(c)2021 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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