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Area leaders on every level to fight decision to close Canadian consulate

Buffalo business and political leaders vowed Friday to fight the Canadian government's plan to close its consulate in the city, which provides immigration help to citizens and trade tips that local business leaders view as crucial to companies looking to do business north of the border.

While Canadian officials offered no official comment, a source within the government confirmed that the facility, which employs about 75, will close. Further details are expected to be announced next week.

Within hours of news reports disclosing the closure, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership had fired off a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper asking that he reconsider the move, while members of Congress also vowed to fight the closing.

Buffalo-area business leaders said the closure could be devastating to local companies looking to do business on both sides of the border.

"It's going to be a crushing blow," said Chris Johnston, president of World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara, who said companies rely on the consulate to navigate the different banking and regulatory systems in Canada.

It's also another crushing blow to the HSBC Tower, where the consulate occupies two floors. An HSBC operation and the Phillips Lytle law firm have also announced plans to leave the building, which is Buffalo's tallest.

The Canadian government source, who asked not to be identified by name, said the government's decision to close the facility came down to economics.

Citizens and Immigration Canada recently decided to end a long-standing policy that required foreign nationals living in Southern Ontario to come to the consulate in Buffalo to make changes to their visas.

But the Canadian agency now will allow those people to do their visa work online. The Canadian source said that meant there just wasn't going to be enough work left to justify keeping the local consulate open.

The facility's other functions will be shifted to the Canadian consulate in New York City, the Canadian official said.

That's just not acceptable, Buffalo business and political leaders said.

In his letter to Harper, Rudnick stressed that the consulate is essential to building cross-border business relationships.

"Elimination of the office would leave a tremendous hole in the economic development delivery system," Rudnick told Harper.

In addition, the consulate helps Canadian shoppers, tourists, students and sports fans who visit Buffalo, Rudnick added.

In an interview, Rudnick said the timing of the move is odd, given that the Harper government and the Obama administration have partnered on a "Beyond the Border" initiative that aims to make cross-border trade and tourism easier.

"This just seems so inconsistent with that," Rudnick said.

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., agreed. "I am confused as to why Canada, on the cusp of implementing the Beyond the Border Initiative, would close one of their active consulates on the border," she said. "I hope this will not negatively affect the cross-border commerce that supports the Western New York economy."

Johnston, of the Trade Center, said the closing shocked a lot of people. "It's going to hurt on the marketing level, the trade level, the individual level, the friendship level," Johnston said.

That's why local politicians said they, too, would fight the move.

"It is my understanding that this decision is not final, and I will be encouraging the Canadian government to reconsider because this would be a great loss," said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo. "For Western New York and Ontario to prosper we need integration with the other, and closing the consulate in Buffalo would be shortsighted."

The consulate occupies the 30th and 31st floors of the HSBC Tower. A major renovation of the offices was recently completed and, in 2010, the consulate renewed its lease for another decade, said Steve Fitzmaurice, chief operating officer for Seneca One Realty LLC, which owns One HSBC Center.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said the consulate's closure should not move forward.

"I fully plan on pushing the Canadian government to reverse this decision and stick to the terms of the lease agreement," Schumer said. "This office is an important resource for businesses throughout Western New York and ought to stay open for business in Buffalo."

Fitzmaurice said he had not heard from the Canadian government about the possibility of breaking the lease.

The consulate has been a tenant in the tower for at least 30 years. "They've been a great tenant for a very long time in our building," Fitzmaurice said.

He would not say whether the consulate would face penalties for trying to end its lease early. Given the state of the economy today, Fitzmaurice added, "It's something you have to be prepared for."

But consulate employees are not prepared for the closure, said one employee who asked not to be identified by name.

Some of the staff have worked at the consulate for up to 30 years, the employee said. About half are American and half are Canadian, with employees living on both sides of the border.

"They don't know anything else. They have one thing in their resume -- this is it," the employee said.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com and swatson@buffnews.com