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When state officials praise the idea of leasing Niagara Falls International Airport to a Spanish international transportation company, they point to Stewart International Airport as an example of what the little-used Niagara site can become.

A closer look at that Orange County airport, the first privatized airport of its kind, provides both hope and caution for the effects privatization may have on the Niagara County facility under operation by Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte.

With the process not quite a year along at Stewart, about 60 miles north of New York City, business leaders and town officials there agreed last week it is far too soon to say whether privatization is a boon or a bust.

There has been a spate of development plans and business expansions near the airport, they said, including an announced $70 million office complex and air cargo firms building bigger warehouses.

But they noted that most of those projects might well have occurred had the state not leased the airport to a British company, National Express, which committed to $35 million in rent over the 99-year term of the lease.

"What we have seen is the benefits of a business attitude there -- things get done faster," said John D'Ambrosio, president of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce. "When you deal with the state, things take months and months and months and years."

Development progress so far has been "minimal," D'Ambrosio said, but it is very early in the game.

The bottom line is that putting the airport in the hands of people whose livelihood depends on making it work should not hurt the community, D'Ambrosio said.

"If it hasn't worked up till now, privatizing it can't hurt," he said. "It can only help."

Both airports were built as Air Force bases, then offered under 99-year leases to companies that might turn them into thriving businesses.

After that, they are in dramatically different situations. Stewart started out as a functioning regional airport; Niagara Falls has been all but closed for nearly two decades.

Except for brief periods, Niagara Falls has not had regular commercial airline flights for years. But when National Express signed the lease for Stewart, it was taking over an airport that had six regularly scheduled airlines operating. About 600,000 passengers passed through its gates last year, down from a high of 800,000 a few years earlier.

With its location not far from the nation's largest city and close to both Interstate 84 and the Thruway, Stewart is well-positioned for cargo and shipping companies, said Lou Heimbach, a member of Stewart's advisory board.

"This is a great area for distribution," he said.

Federal Express and Emery Worldwide both have recently expanded their operations near the airport, but it is not clear whether the privatization plans were the deciding factor, as opposed to Stewart's location or other elements, he said.

"The growing of the airport as a regional facility is being carried out much more effectively than it was before," said Heimbach. "Somebody's accountable for failures and successes, which wasn't the case when government was in charge here."

A $70 million office complex called the Hudson Valley World Trade Center, to be built on a former Army post beside the airport, could be a star of privatization, Heimbach said. Work is under way on the first buildings.

But much of the airport's potential relies on improving access to nearby Interstate 84, said D'Ambrosio. A planned four-lane interchange is being delayed by a lawsuit over environmental concerns.

"I have no doubt the roads will be here in five years," he said.

That will improve the airport's attractiveness to both passenger airline and industrial interests, D'Ambrosio said.

The Stewart privatization process has its critics as well.

The airport is entirely within the Town of New Windsor, but delivers nothing in payments in lieu of taxes, said Supervisor George Meyers.

"We got zero," said Meyers. "Anything airport-related doesn't pay taxes."

Meyers criticized the airport operator, National Express, pointing to declining passenger counts since it took over. The airlines that once operated full-size passenger jets out of Stewart now use 50-seat propeller-driven craft, he said.

"If we keep going the way we're going," he said, "it won't be long before we're flying out of here in Piper Cubs and glider planes."

Still, Meyers said he supported privatization -- just not the airport's current operators. The Trade Center, built on land the town leased to its developers, stands to create significant jobs for the town once the highway exit is finished, he said.

From the town's point of view, "it's important that the airport succeeds," Meyers said. It just has the wrong company running it, he said.

Meanwhile, as the Federal Aviation Administration prepared to open its 60-day comment period on the proposed contract with Cintra, which agrees to invest at least $10.1 million over 13 years, some local residents noticed that workers and construction trailers have appeared on the edge of the airport property, where Williams Road, which leads to the Summit Park Mall, dead-ends at Niagara Falls Boulevard.

Despite the timing, they are there for a 2-year-old project, finally come to pass. The federal government and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority are spending more than $2.5 million to provide an entryway to the airport beginning at the Williams Road intersection.

The project also will provide an internal access road from the airport to the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency's industrial park, so that traffic between the two areas doesn't have to use Niagara Falls Boulevard. The work is supposed to be coordinated with the state Department of Transportation's $5 million plan for widening Williams Road.

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