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New York State economic development grants are spread too thin

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks Thursday,

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016, during the regional economical development council awards ceremony in Albany. Credit: Hans Pennink

At first glance, it seems that $62 million could go a long way to help transform Long Island’s economy, perhaps adding jobs, spurring development and enabling new ideas to become new companies.

But the money, which the Island received Dec. 8 as part of New York State’s annual Regional Economic Development Council competition, is spread among 101 laudable but narrowly focused projects. Examples include $25,000 to a Ronkonkoma aerospace company for equipment and $400,000 to build a healthy living center in Huntington.

Instead of making significant impacts in a few key spots, the funds will register as many tiny blips on the region’s radar. In many cases, the awards are incremental and inconsistent. They’re not all pieces of a thematic puzzle, which means they will do little to transform the area despite talk in Albany about how regionally significant the money is.

With this year’s funds, there are plans on Long Island to create summer festivals, and promises to continue workforce training. There’s a proposal to study how data are maintained and protected during emergencies in North Hempstead, and pledges to purchase machines and equipment. In the few cases where the biggest amounts — $1 million or $2 million — were awarded, small pieces will be completed at large-scale developments like the Nassau Hub, where pedestrian bridges will be built, or companies will lease space for research and development, as biotech startup Modern Meadow plans to do at Farmingdale State College.

It’s been six years since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo instituted the regional councils and created awards, replacing a process driven by legislators, who would fund pet projects, aka “member items.” The new system is better, and the councils do provide a structure for local leaders to work together to set mutual goals. But now, after more than $4 billion in awards, state officials should conduct a full assessment to evaluate the program’s successes and limitations, and ways to improve it.

To start, Cuomo should consider using larger sums in game-changing ways, and spending much less on existing small programs. Funding usually ranges from $60 million to $80 million in each of the state’s 10 regions. In the future, councils across the state could be required to use half of their funds for two or three transformative or otherwise significant projects. That would create pots of $10 million or $20 million for the biggest efforts. The rest could go to the best of the smaller projects.

The state also has to fix the process. The councils should consider encouraging turnover to bring in new members, along with outside experts, to help develop meaningful projects. More important, the state has to improve openness and accountability. Taxpayers cannot easily see what each project promised and delivered in jobs, economic impact, spending or other measures. That has to change so that there are clear, quantitative goals and results everyone can understand.

Cuomo treats each year’s announcement of regional grants as a splashy awards ceremony. For Long Island and other regions to truly win, however, the projects must be meaningful, and their impact has to be clear. Only then can the winners merit the glamour and glory of the awards they receive. — The editorial board