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Behind the Buffalo Billion: Will the probe affect other projects?

University of Rochester
Rochester says seen a major investment in photonics, which involves the use of light in robotics, medical imaging and other fields.

With the discussion surrounding a federal probe of contracts connected to the Buffalo Billion, there are concerns about possible effects on any related economic development projects throughout the upstate New York area.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in March that two companies would be coming to Rochester, creating hundreds of jobs as a result of the recent push into photonics, which involves the use of light in robotics, medical imaging and other fields.

Cuomo said the two companies would eventually create about 1,400 jobs. Rochester is set to become a hub for photonics, with an infusion of more than $600 million from federal, state and private sources.

But when the news broke in recent months about a federal probe of contracts surrounding the Buffalo Billion, as well as state investigations, there have been concerns about whether the photonics initiative’s progress might be ensnared in some way.

Last month, Wegmans CEO Danny Wegman told the Democrat and Chronicle that the investigation seemed to have somewhat slowed the regional economic development efforts. Wegman is co-chair of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council.

But his concern is not shared by a couple of key Rochester-area officials, including Rep. Louise Slaughter, who has been instrumental in getting a photonics institute to be headquartered in Rochester.

“Photonics is a federal program. What they’re looking into are the programs that came from SUNY Poly,” Slaughter said. “And if you remember, the state had all these contests — ‘We’ll give you half a billion if you compete against your neighbors’ — that is not what we have done with photonics.”

Slaughter cautioned that while people may be impatient for photonics and the jobs that it will bring, it is a process that will take some time to ramp up.

Bob Duffy, president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, expressed a similar sentiment. Duffy said he understands the need for federal and state officials looking into these economic development programs to perform their due diligence.

“We certainly support them to do their investigation, but the word that we’ve gotten from the governor’s office and the state is, don’t expect any delays at all,” Duffy said.

Duffy, a former lieutenant governor and Rochester mayor, also has praised the work done by SUNY Polytechnic Institute President Alain Kaloyeros, who has come under additional scrutiny as part of the probes into how the Buffalo Billion and other projects have been structured. Duffy said Kaloyeros and his team have been responsible for enormous investments around the state.

SUNY Poly is involved not only in Rochester’s photonics initiative, but also in similar models around the state including a nanotechnology center in Albany, a high-tech hub in Syracuse and another high-tech initiative in Utica.

The former lieutenant governor also said that while what he knows of the federal or state probes involving economic development projects is what he reads or hears from the media, he did not see evidence of corruption during his tenure in Albany.

“Having spent four years with the governor, I have never seen anything, been involved in anything, had anything even inferred that was anything but aboveboard and by the numbers,” he said.

Although Cuomo did recently appoint a special investigator in response to the federal probe of the Buffalo Billion project, he did praise Kaloyeros last month for his economic development stewardship.

“Dr. Alain Kaloyeros’ work has been extraordinary in turning around Buffalo, in turning around Albany, the photonics center here in Rochester, and questions are normal, and they’re natural,” said Cuomo.

Not as enamored with Kaloyeros or SUNY Poly is State Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle. The Rochester-area lawmaker was involved in some of the factional fighting that went on when there was a dispute over which building in downtown Rochester would house headquarters for the new photonics hub.

“I’ve been concerned about the progress of the photonics project since its inception and have always expressed my concerns that the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology, among others, be at the table,” Morelle said. “SUNY Poly has taken the lead in the project and obviously they’re being looked at, although I’ve not heard anything that relates to photonics specifically.”

But local leaders in Rochester seem to have made their peace for now, in terms of the boards and buildings that will be used for the photonics initiative.

They also remain hopeful that whatever fallout occurs from the state and federal probes of the Buffalo Billion, it will not impede the progression of a high-tech project some Rochester-area officials feel has the potential to create thousands of jobs.

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