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Some officials eager, others skeptical about Start-Up NY program at SUNY Potsdam

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POTSDAM — SUNY Potsdam met with local officials Thursday to talk about Start-Up NY, the statewide initiative that puts major tax breaks for entrepreneurs in the hands of colleges.

Representatives from the St. Lawrence County Industrial Agency and the town and village of Potsdam joined other local officials and college representatives to discuss the plan’s implementation.

“It’s an exciting new initiative, and the campus is excited to move this forward,” said John M. Wicke, college director of strategic alliances.

Mr. Wicke has been a development officer at the college since 2011, and was given the new title last week and charged with overseeing SUNY Potsdam’s Start-Up NY efforts.

Start-Up NY will let new businesses operate almost completely tax-free. Employees will not have to pay income tax, while the companies will be exempt from property, sales and business taxes for 10 years.

“It gives us an opportunity to hopefully create more jobs in the north country,” interim college President Dennis C. Hefner said.

The college has identified several spaces, including offices in Carson Hall, vacant land on campus and the IDA’s Potsdam Commercial Business Park, to serve as tax-free zones for startups.

The program officially begins next month, but the college probably will not be ready to take applications from business owners until March. SUNY Potsdam is still working to finalize its guidelines for the program and get final approval for its tax-free zones.

Feedback at Thursday’s meeting was mostly positive, but village Mayor Steven W. Yurgartis said he was worried about the potential for abuse.

“I think there’s a lot of great potential,” he said. “I want to support Start-Up NY, but let’s all remember the Empire Zone program,” he said.

The Empire Zone program, which began in 2000, has been criticized for providing large tax breaks without having a measurable impact on job creation. Mr. Yurgartis said he was worried that under Start-Up NY, colleges have been made the linchpins for a community’s economic development, without any financial support and little preparation from the state.

“These economic development programs are gamed by businesses in ways we can’t predict,” he said.

Others expressed concerns that companies would take advantage of the tax breaks to compete against existing firms, but officials assured that the law makes such a situation illegal. The college cannot accept applications from businesses that would compete with established local entrepreneurs.

“We’re not going to accept a competing firm; clearly that’s not a level playing field,” Mr. Wicke said.

SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Canton, which also is participating in the program, will depend on a large list of local partners to make it a success, Mr. Hefner said.

Start-Up NY will persist until 2020, at which point it can be renewed or disbanded. Colleges can create or eliminate tax-free zones at any time until this point. The application period for businesses will end in 2020, although those that have been accepted will continue to receive tax breaks for up to 10 years.

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