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A critical voice for New York's future

President and CEO of Empire State Development and

President and CEO of Empire State Development and Commissioner of the New York State Department of Economic Development Howard Zemsky at Touro Law School in Centeral Islip on Aug. 8, 2018. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Wanted: a new leader with business or planning experience, fresh ideas, a strong voice, an understanding of suburban and downstate needs, deep political know-how and a good sense of humor.

Now that Howard Zemsky has announced his plans to step down as chief executive of the Empire State Development Corp., the economic arm of New York State government, the crucial task of finding a successor to the Buffalo real estate developer begins.

That person will play a critical role for Long Island.

With big projects like Belmont Park and the Nassau Hub in progress, and plenty of additional work to be done on downtown revitalization, workforce development, affordable housing and more, the new Empire State Development leader will have a busy agenda for our region alone. In four years as CEO, Zemsky made progress in building the upstate economy, addressing economic issues regionally, and trying to tackle the ever-present need to attract and retain young workers and new businesses to a high-cost state.

All of that’s worth continuing and expanding. But the new CEO must rethink the agency’s programs and strategies to work more closely with elected officials, local leaders, and community groups, to drill down on key issues like affordable and workforce housing, and to learn from one of Zemsky’s most difficult moments: when Amazon dropped its plans to develop a headquarters in Long Island City.

Among the tasks that must be on the new leader’s to-do list: taking a hard look at the Regional Economic Development Council process, which results in more than $750 million in annual awards granted for 10 regions’ favorite projects, to determine whether change is warranted; evaluating Empire State Development’s other economic programs to see what works; and focusing the agency more on specific areas of need, like workforce development and downtown revitalization.

Someone with a business or an urban planning background could take on that challenge, but an understanding of New York’s complex political landscape is important.

This time, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo might consider those who call New York City or Long Island home. Zemsky’s ties to upstate New York were no doubt helpful at times, but also might have hurt when the agency navigated difficult downstate waters, especially during the Amazon debacle. We’ve had downstate leaders of Empire State Development before, and it might be time to look for one again. Zemsky’s decision to remain as the corporation’s chairman could help in continuing to provide upstate New York with the voice it deserves.

More important, the next Empire State Development chief should be more aggressive in recruiting out-of-state companies to New York, while developing a more visible and vocal presence in political and business circles in Albany, New York City and across the state. A stronger, more proactive advocate within New York and beyond could propel the state to new economic heights.

 — The editorial board

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