Paterson to name economic development czar

June 5, 2008 11:41:15 AM PDT
Gov. David Paterson is expected to choose a prominent Western New York banker and longtime advocate for upstate revitalization as his statewide head of economic development, according to a state official speaking on the condition of anonymity. Paterson will pick Robert Wilmers, chairman and CEO of M&T Bank Corp. based in Buffalo. The 74-year old executive is also a founder of the Unshackle Upstate group and a board member of the state Business Council who has been critical of Albany dating back to the Pataki administration. Wilmers has chastised Albany for regularly spending at twice the inflation rate.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because Paterson hadn't yet announced his choice.

Wilmers will replace Dan Gundersen and Patrick J. Foye, appointed by former governor Eliot Spitzer to run economic development upstate and in New York City, respectively.

Paterson has wanted to return to a system in which one official coordinates economic development statewide instead of the two-leader system Spitzer created. The offices use tax credits and tax breaks to keep employers who are considering moving out of state and to entice other employers into New York. The tax incentives are supposed to create jobs, a measure where much of the state outside New York City and its suburbs has been in decline for decades.

Gundersen resigned Thursday, two months after Foye resigned.

Paterson says one person in charge could avoid counterproductive competition and unnecessary cost. His strategy was at first met with strong opposition upstate, especially from long troubled Buffalo, but was tempered after his latest tour with upstate officials. The visits included one with Wilmers in Buffalo.

"Whoever takes the job has to be ready to make fundamental change," said Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat critical of economic development during the Pataki administration. "The programs have become enormous giveaways to powerful interests unrelated to any public benefit."

Wilmers stepped down as a founding member of Buffalo's fiscal control board last summer, after the board created to right the city's finances helped Buffalo generate $186 million in budget savings, improve its Wall Street bond rating and increase its surplus to more than $100 million, according to Buffalo Business First magazine. He had been a member since 2003.

M&T was ranked 496th on the Fortune 500 company list as of 2007.

In 2004, Wilmers offered to finance Buffalo's search for a new school superintendent and to sweeten the salary so that the best candidates were not lost to higher-paying districts. Wilmers said he would try to raise money from businesses, but would pay on his own if that fell short. He declined to put a dollar figure on the offer. The district declined.