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Next step: making sure we don't blow $500 million 

It sounds like a lot of money, but in terms of government spending, $500 million really isn't, which is why careful investment in projects that move the Finger Lakes economy forward and finally shake off the region's Rust Belt past is so important.

The Finger Lakes is one of the three regions to win $500 million in Governor Andrew Cuomo's Upstate Revitalization Initiative. The Rochester-Finger Lakes area will receive a minimum of $100 million in economic development aid each year over the next five years.

But this big win raises a lot of concerns, such as the possibility of squandering the money on the wrong projects and on ill-conceived ideas that won't produce jobs. How will projects be approved for funding and who determines which ones get the green light? And what's the next step?

Mark Peterson, president and CEO of Greater Rochester Enterprise, says that the first public meeting on how the process will move forward is on Friday, January 8. The exact time and location will be announced later in the month.

The real work is just beginning, Peterson says. Winning the competition simply allows various organizations and ventures to apply for URI funds through the Regional Economic Council.

The council will review applications, which should include detailed plans about proposed projects. If an application meets the council's standards, Peterson says, it will then go to the state for another evaluation before it's approved.

The Finger Lakes application zeroed in on several areas that some officials describe as the region's economic pillars: agriculture and food production, advanced manufacturing and technology, and the emerging field of optics-photonics-imaging.

The types of projects and ventures being discussed cover a wide range, from an expansion of the University of Rochester's Laboratory of Laser Energetics to creation of a microbrewing hub downtown.

Another pillar of the Finger Lakes' winning application is Pathways to Prosperity, a concept that links workforce development with the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative. Many officials including Peterson, Assembly member Joe Morelle, and Fran Weisberg, president and CEO of United Way, say that a focused approach to reducing the area's well-documented issues with poverty may have been what clinched the deal.

Making sure that the poor are ready for emerging jobs is critically important to reducing poverty in the area, says Anne Kress, president of Monroe Community College. MCC is heavily involved in workforce development, she says, citing its precision machining and tooling program. But it is also exploring accelerated programs that reduce the training period and guide people more quickly into the workforce.

MCC is also focusing on fields with career potential, she says.

"It's jobs to sustaining careers, not pathways to a job," Kress says.

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