ALBANY – The head of one of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s signature economic development programs is leaving her state post to return to the private sector.
The departure of StartUp NY’s Leslie Whatley comes as lawmakers have been asking for the whereabouts of a report, due two months ago, detailing the job-creation activities of the tax incentive-laden program’s second year in existence in 2015.
Whatley on Tuesday afternoon confirmed her decision to leave the administration as StartUp’s executive vice president. She said her departure was based solely on her original plans when she accepted the job and an opportunity to join Building and Land Technology, a large, Stamford, Conn.-based commercial, retail and residential real estate management and development company.
“I’m extremely proud where we’ve brought this program. We took it from raw legislation and built it into a fully functioning program statewide,” Whatley said in an interview.
“We’ve taken this program, which was a brilliant idea by the governor, and we’ve implemented it and evolved it in a way that is maybe a little bit different than people originally anticipated but I think will create a real change in the fabric of the economy because of it,” she added.
The StartUp program was authorized in 2013 with much fanfare from the governor, who said its benefits would draw companies to the Empire State as part of an effort to reverse the state’s reputation as one of the nation’s highest taxed. In the first full year of operation in 2014, however, 76 jobs were created statewide.
At a cost of more than $40 million for advertising and marketing, the program was among the state’s economic development agency’s promotion costs that came under fire last year in an audit by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. Critics accused the marketing funds of being promotional vehicles for the governor.
The Empire State Development Corp., Cuomo’s main economic development agency, was due to release the program’s 2015 job creation statistics on April 1. In March, the Cuomo administration said the program had attracted 172 companies across the state and that, in total, those companies had pledged to create slightly more than 4,000 jobs over the next five years. Still missing, though, is the legally required report showing how many jobs were actually created during 2015.
Whatley said her decision to leave has nothing to do with the lateness of the report or any other problems.
Whatley was lured from the private sector in the fall of 2013 to become executive vice president of StartUp NY; her approximately $170,000 annual salary has been split between the State University of New York Research Foundation and the ESDC agency. She joined the state after 30 years in various corporate posts, including real estate sector positions with General Motors, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase.
At the time of her hiring, Cuomo administration described StartUp NY as “the most ambitious economic development program” begun in New York in years to attract new businesses. The program offers a range of incentives, including no state income taxes for 10 years for the employees in the new jobs created, as well as zero corporate, sales and property taxes during the same period.
“I think the effects of this program will be felt over time. Economic development is not something that happens overnight,” Whatley said Tuesday.
In a written statement, Howard Zemsky, president of Empire State Development, said Whatley made StartUp “a personal mission’’ since joining the administration. “Unless you’ve seen her in action, you can’t fully appreciate the work it took and the foundation she has laid to ensure its future success,’’ he said.
Whatley’s departure surprised the lawmaker who heads the Assembly committee with oversight responsibility over economic development programs. “To run a heralded program like this must have been quite an opportunity for her. I can’t fathom why she wants to leave,” Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, a Kenmore Democrat, said Tuesday when told Whatley is leaving the administration. Schimminger, who has raised concerns about StartUp in the past, called upon Cuomo to quickly replace her “because it’s critically important for maintenance and accountability in the program.”
The still-unavailable StartUp job creation report for 2015 has lawmakers like Schimminger wondering what it will contain. He noted that the StartUp legislation did not dictate a precise date for the report’s annual release, but that was the date the Empire State Development Corp. picked as its own deadline in the statute’s rulemaking process.
“This is a program which provides very generous benefits in exchange for real commitment to create new jobs. We don’t take that kind of trade-off lightly. We have no basis upon which to evaluate the program without the numbers. One begins to wonder what the numbers will show,” he said.