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Canadian Consulate closing stirs action; Economic agencies in area seek to fill void

Canada is the Buffalo Niagara region's biggest trading partner, so the closing of the Canadian Consulate in less than three months has sent shock waves through much of the business community.

The announcement of the closing, by the end of August, came as a surprise and sparked a local effort to urge the Canadian government to reverse the decision.

But as the closing approaches, talk has turned to how economic agencies here can take on bigger roles in offering services similar to what the Canadian Consulate now provides.

The stakes are high. About 30 percent of all trade between the U.S. and Canada crosses the border in the Buffalo Niagara region.

"We're going to have to fill the void," said Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. "The potential opportunity is so great, we have no choice."

Those discussions are likely to involve the Partnership, as well as trade groups such as the World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara, development agencies such as the Erie County Industrial Development Agency and Erie County, officials said.

"I think you'll see the county take on a more active role," said Christopher Johnston, president of the World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara. "We're trying to figure out how to piece it all together."

Local officials are hoping to persuade the Canadian government to maintain a physical presence, even a vastly reduced one, in the Buffalo Niagara region to provide "an extended role in trade and immigration issues up here," Rudnick said.

"There's going to be a significant void," Johnston said.

Economic development officials said the consulate plays an important role in developing contacts between businesses in the region and in Canada. It also is an important source of information for local businesses about trade, tariff and border issues, as well as market data.

"They've been facilitators," Rudnick said. "They've been points of contact. They've been there to answer questions."

While the Canadian Consulate in New York City is expected to pick up most of the Buffalo office's responsibilities, local development officials worry whether businesses here will be able to get answers quickly.

They also are concerned about a lack of knowledge about local issues when dealing with Canadian officials in a more distant office.

Johnston also lamented the loss of personal contact that will occur once the consulate closes. Marta Moszczenska, the consulate's consul general, for instance, serves on the trade center's board of directors.

While the consulate is focused on bolstering the Canadian economy, and the local development groups are trying to boost business in the Buffalo Niagara region, officials said the close economic ties between the two areas have produced many areas where the two sides share a common interest.

For instance, a Canadian company that uses a consulate program to help it export to the United States may end up giving extra business to the Buffalo Niagara region by using U.S. suppliers or American firms for banking or legal services, Johnston said.

The local office of the U.S. Commerce Department has found the Canadian Consulate's immigration section helpful with documentation requirements for American workers in Canada, said Rosanna Masucci, acting director of the U.S. Commercial Service in Buffalo.

James Manno, vice president of sales and marketing at Sonwil Distribution, said that when he learned of plans to close the consulate, he quickly made calls to see if anything could be done to stop it.

Sonwil has used the consulate for information on the Canadian economy and legislation affecting cross-border trade, Manno said. The consulate has also introduced Sonwil to companies interested in forming cross-border business relationships. "They've been an incredible resource for us," Manno said.

How will Sonwil fill that void when the consulate here is gone? "I'm waiting for those answers myself," Manno said.

Both the ECIDA and the Binational Alliance, which has a location at the ECIDA's Buffalo offices, already have a number of initiatives under way to promote cross-border business activity.

"I think with the closing of the Canadian Consulate, they just become that much more important and that much more necessary," said Maryann Stein, the ECIDA's director of international programs.

Both Stein and Arlene White, executive director of the Binational Alliance, are trying to connect business people and decision-makers from both sides of the border on a "peer" level.

For instance, the ECIDA in September will hold an "Exports to Canada" program in Hamilton, Ont., that will walk a small number of U.S. companies through the exporting process.

And the Binational Alliance, which promotes cross-border tourism and commerce, is conducting a series of export financing seminars. "All of these resources are here, and we'll be able to help," White said.

The Partnership last month formed a Can-Am Council, made up of local business and tourism officials, along with representatives from Canada. That could take a more active role, said Craig L. Turner, a Partnership vice president.

But filling the consulate's void won't be easy. Johnston noted that the shutdown comes months after the state closed its economic development office in Toronto.

email: drobinson@buffnews.com and mglynn@buffnews.com