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Merchandise exports from the Niagara Frontier grew by 46 percent last year, making Buffalo the fastest-growing exporter of the nation's major cities.

Analysts said the expansion in foreign trade was largely fueled by a resurgence of the auto industry, increasing numbers of small firms selling overseas and a support network for novice exporters.

"We've been helped by the expansion of the auto industry and the competitiveness of the plants here," said Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Greater Buffalo Partnership, the region's largest business group.

"This area's auto parts factories are critical to the economy. I'm sure they were a significant factor in the export activity taking place," he said.

Companies in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area sold $2.3 billion worth of goods to foreigners last year, an increase of $726 million over 1994 figures, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. The figures were contained in a survey of 253 cities released this week by the department's International Trade Administration.

The Niagara Frontier's export growth -- in terms of the percentage change in the dollar value of exports from 1994 to 1995 -- outstripped that of Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City and San Francisco.

But in terms of absolute dollars, most of these cities surpassed the Buffalo area's performance.

The Niagara Frontier's 46 percent growth in exports during 1994-95 made it the 24th fastest-growing export community. LaCrosse, Wis., was No. 1 with a 197 percent increase in exports, followed by many towns that are smaller than Buffalo.

"Those other 23 cities better watch themselves because we have a lot of growth ahead of us," said Herbert P. Ladds Jr., head of the Western New York International Trade Council and
president of Columbus McKinnon Corp. in Amherst.

"More and more people are trying to export and are getting help doing it," he said. "Exporting no longer seems as difficult, there's not as much mystery about it as there used to be."

Last week, the trade council was recognized by President Clinton with the "E" award for export promotion. It is one of only two not-for-profit organizations that will be recognized this year for encouraging U.S. businesses to sell their goods and/or services overseas.

"This is good news for the economy," Ladds said, referring to the trade data. "We are taking advantage of our geographic position near Canada and the major U.S. markets. We also have good infrastructure and the people that are needed to help exporters," he said, listing attorneys, bankers, customs brokers and accountants.

The Commerce Department did not indicate where the bulk of new exports from Erie and Niagara counties are going, but data from New York State shows that much of it ended up in Canada.

In terms of the dollar value of merchandise sold, the Niagara Frontier displaced Syracuse in 1995 to become the second-largest upstate exporter for the first time in recent memory.

Rochester remained No. 1 among the upstate communities with $3.9 billion in exports, followed by Buffalo at $2.3 billion, Syracuse at $2 billion, Albany at $1.1 billion and Jamestown at $257 million.

"One cannot overstate the importance of exports in creating jobs and economic growth and opportunity in our cities," Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor said in a statement.

"This refutes the notion that trade is somehow bad for this country," added Commerce Undersecretary Stuart Eizenstat. "It is good for the country and more and more areas are taking advantage of exports."

Last week, GOP challenger Bob Dole had attacked the Clinton administration's trade record, saying a string of higher deficits had worsened middle-class anxiety and showed that "thousands and thousands" of American jobs are being given away to foreign countries.

The Commerce report showed that in the 253 metro areas surveyed, merchandise trade exports totaled $467.66 billion last year, a 12.6 percent improvement over 1994. These cities accounted for about three-quarters of last year's total merchandise exports.

Overall, the United States posted a $105.06 billion trade deficit in 1995.

Detroit remained the country's top exporting area in 1995, but its sales of $27.32 billion represented a 0.6 percent drop from its 1994 total.

After Detroit, the leaders in total sales were New York, at $27.13 billion, an increase of 15.2 percent from the previous year, and San Jose, with exports of $26.82 billion, a 34.5 percent increase. San Jose's increase pushed it ahead of the Los Angeles area, which dropped to fourth place with sales of $24.73 billion, up 11.3 percent.

After San Jose's $6.9 billion increase, other cities with big dollar gains were Chicago, where exports rose by $3.75 billion; New York, up $3.59 billion; Houston, up $2.86 billion; and the Los Angeles area, up $2.51 billion.

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