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Ten years ago Niagara County launched a major investment of public funds in a program to boost its economy and create jobs.

Not all the goals have been achieved, but the results show the effort has been successful.

Federal grants, state loans and a substantial investment of the county's own funds have propelled the effort. Its main architect is Leo J. Nowak Jr., the county Industrial Development Agency's executive director, and until four years ago also head of the county Planning and Industrial Development Department.

What made the development unusual was the substantial investment of county funds in an IDA revolving loan fund, Nowak says.

"We've progressed, with a definite increase in the number and size of projects," with no county funding in the past two years, he said.

In 1985, the county opened the Rainbow Industrial Center, an incubator for new businesses in Wheatfield, next to the Niagara Falls International Airport. The 50,000-square-foot center was built for $1.8 million, financed partly by a federal grant.

In 1986, the county spent $160,000 for a comprehensive economic plan prepared by a national consulting firm.

Several of the report's recommendations have been achieved:

Creation of 6,200 private-sector jobs by 1995. The county Industrial Development Agency reports that 5,338 jobs have been created through its bond and revolving-loan programs, and others have been created by programs of other public agencies.

Investment of $200 million in private capital in a 10-year period. The county IDA projects totaled $522.6 million.

Creation of the Tourism Department with a countywide tourism marketing program, financed by county taxes.

The IDA opened its second 50,000-square-foot incubator, Niagara Industrial Suites, in 1994 and it is now fully leased. A federal grant covered half the $2.4 million cost, but anticipated state funds have not come through and a county loan has not been repaid.

The IDA revolving loan fund has been increased from $933,000 in 1986 to $9 million.

Not all the goals set in the 1986 report have been achieved.

A plan to improve access and develop a trail system in the Niagara Gorge to boost tourism has not gotten off the ground.

A super marina on the Lake Ontario shore is another recommendation that has gone nowhere, for lack of federal funds for a breakwater.

"There have been some positive accomplishments," with many gaols met, but "there's a good deal more to be done," said Charles P. Steiner, Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce president. The Niagara Falls Airport "offers a great opportunity that we haven't been able to capitalize on," he added.

The county loaned the IDA $750,000 for the original Rainbow Industrial Center incubator, and the repayment went to the IDA revolving loan fund. In 1987 alone, the county spent $1.5 million on economic development, expanding the loan fund and tourism promotion.

"In the last 12 to 18 months we've had a successful effort in job retention," said Richard A. Seekins, who just stepped down as county planning, development and environmental director.

"The Niagara County Economic Development Alliance (a public-private partnership) saved about 650 jobs with businesses slated to leave. You've got to get them early, not when they're on the verge of closing. Businesses don't always know the variety of services available. Business needs to know they're wanted, not taken for granted."

"Small companies are where the growth's occurring. The more diverse your economy, the better off you are," Seekins said. His agency has targeted small and medium-size businesses, and Canadian businesses, he said. Ten years ago Nowak showed that Canadian business could be attracted to the Rainbow Center incubator, Seekins said.

Western Niagara County, about 75 miles from Toronto, has an edge over Buffalo in attracting Toronto businessmen because of the easy driving distance, Seekins said.

The Canadian dollar's current low exchange rate is an obstacle to inducing Canadian businesses to set up manufacturing operations on this side of the border. But James D. Phillips of Lewiston, executive director of the Canadian-American Border Trade Alliance, says this is a temporary swing, and over the long term, exchange rates do not weigh in either county's favor.

Two-way trade between the United States and Canada grew from $188 billion in 1992 to $417 billion in 1995, and 75 percent of American exports to Canada go to Ontario, an advantage for the Niagara Frontier, he said.

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