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BNE sharpening its focus to key on 4 business sectors

After seven years, the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise economic development and marketing initiative is narrowing its focus.

The group, pushing its "Buffalo Niagara: Where Life Works" theme that emphasizes the region's quality of life, education and affordable housing in addition to its economic development opportunities, is honing in on four targeted

industries this year:

* Advanced manufacturing and agribusiness.

* Back office service centers for finance, insurance and information technology companies.

* Canadian businesses.

*The region's fledgling life sciences sector.

Those are areas where BNE officials believe the region has competitive advantages and offer the best potential for growth.

"We've got to be very good at what we do, and that requires focus," said Thomas Kucharski, the BNE's president. "We've found the core things that work."

That's a refinement from the group's focus on six broader sectors in 2006, which included tourism and logistics, said John Mineo, the group's treasurer and a senior vice president at First Niagara Financial Group.

The BNE also is paying $140,000 to hire Development Counselors International, a 46-year-old economic development advisory firm, to develop a focused marketing campaign and drum up leads for economic development projects.

Despite a $3 million annual budget that was 25 percent smaller last year because of the loss of Erie County funds, BNE officials said they're seeing the payoff from all the legwork done years before.

The BNE took credit for helping bring 38 new projects during the fiscal year that ended in June, resulting in $229 million in new investment and the creation and retention of more than 3,436 jobs.

"The track record of the BNE is one of the best in the United States," said Randall L. Clark, the group's chairman. "The investment is very sound and gets a very valid return."

The BNE claimed two more project "wins" in 2006 than it did the year before. It was the most successes ever for the economic development and marketing venture, although the job figure was 27 percent lower than it was in 2005. The BNE considers about 60 percent of the jobs from those 38 projects to be new jobs for the region. The capital investment involved in those projects grew by 13 percent last year to $258 million.

The changing economy, led by the decline in manufacturing and the growth in more technologically advanced services and production, means that economic development efforts will be encountering more projects with heavy capital costs but relatively small to moderate numbers of jobs, Clark said.

"What you're going to see in the future is major investments of capital in communities that don't have a large number of jobs," he said. "There are going to be huge investments of dollars, but they aren't going to attract large numbers of jobs."

Going forward, the BNE plans to continue to make a major push aimed at businesses in Toronto and southern Ontario, highlighting the Buffalo Niagara region's lower costs while still being close to their home market. The BNE is targeting mid-size firms with 25 to 300 employees, noting that 59 percent of all Canadians live within a one-day drive from the Buffalo Niagara region.

In addition, the BNE plans to soup up its Web site and also continue its refined marketing push that stresses the region's quality of life alongside its economic opportunities.

Since its founding, the BNE also has worked with other local development agencies to coordinate efforts and become the point agency for companies looking for information about the region and economic development incentives that are available.

That approach last year generated a steady stream of inquiries from more than 400 companies interested in expanding or simply curious about what the region has to offer, BNE officials said. But much of the BNE's efforts still involve helping the companies, such as New Era Cap Co. and Hydro-Air Components, that are already here.