ALBANY, N.Y. — It seems to be his nature. From the bruising basketball games he once played with his dad to his bare-knuckle approach to politics, Andrew Cuomo relishes competition. Making others compete? That may be even better.
During his time as governor of New York, Cuomo has launched a $1 million business innovation competition in Buffalo and a $20 million clean-energy contest in the Southern Tier, held annual kayak races in the Adirondacks and announced a competition to redesign LaGuardia Airport.
This year he's proposing a $1.5 billion economic development contest that will pit seven upstate regions against each other. The three regions who submit the winning proposals for how they would use the money will each get $500 million. Almost immediately, the contest was dubbed Cuomo's "Hunger Games."
To some lawmakers and upstate mayors, the comparison to the cut-throat competition held by a dystopian dictatorship in the popular series of books and movies was only half in jest. But Cuomo is unabashed about his belief that competition breeds success.
"I believe in competition," Cuomo said in January. "If I just gave you the money, you wouldn't do all the hard things you have to do to get the money. The competition amongst yourselves brings up the performance of everybody."
The latest contest, which would be funded with money from the state's $5 billion windfall from financial settlements, is now part of ongoing budget negotiations with lawmakers. Republicans in the Senate have criticized the plan, saying the state should spread out its economic development efforts to help all of upstate.
"To have seven regions competing, there shouldn't be four losers," Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos of Long Island said Thursday.
Some would prefer the money go to upstate New York's massive infrastructure needs. Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner is seeking $750 million to fix the city's notoriously antiquated water system, which saw 400 main breaks last year. Miner said she also finds the win-lose aspect of the competition "troubling."
"Do I want to take money from the city of Rochester that would benefit them? No," said Miner, a Democrat. "It doesn't make any sense to me. I have family in every region of the state. If central New York wins and the Finger Lakes loses, that doesn't give me any pleasure."
Cuomo's administration notes that the $500 million prizes will come on top of $750 million in regular economic development funding spread across all the regions. Following criticism of his contest idea, Cuomo announced that he would reduce the regular allocations to winners to increase how much goes to the losing regions to guarantee they get at least $90 million.
He has said the contest represents a break with the "old Albany mentality" and could help local areas become more self-sufficient — and better able to address their own problems without Albany's help.
"Show us how you become economically stronger and create jobs," Cuomo told the editorial board of The Post-Standard in Syracuse in February. "Then you fix your own pipes."
Upstate business leaders have asked Cuomo to increase the total amount of the prizes to $2.5 billion. Cuomo's allies in the business world have praised the contest.
"I call it 'Cuomonomics,'" said Danny Wegman, CEO of Rochester-based Wegmans Food Markets and the co-chair of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council, one of the regional panels Cuomo created to award state economic development funds. "Competition is a key driver. ... Without competition we would not have consensus. This is not a small change. It is a game-changer."
The seven eligible regions are the Finger Lakes, the Southern Tier, central New York, the Mohawk Valley, the Capitol Region, the mid-Hudson Valley and the North Country. Western New York isn't eligible because of Cuomo's previous "Buffalo Billion" initiative.
Proposals from the regions are due by July 1.
Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said he expects his region — the Southern Tier — to put forward one of the strongest proposals. He said he likes Cuomo's approach.
"It's the opposite of how we've given out economic development money in the past: spread it out like peanut butter on bread," he said. "It's spread so thin it doesn't make a very good sandwich."