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Western New York has the opportunity to assume a leading role in the further development U.S.-Canada trade, a Niagara County legislator said Tuesday.

The region has the expertise within its universities and businesses to help border cities like Detroit and Seattle capitalize on the Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Canada, Lee Simonson, chairman of the Niagara County Legislature, told a group of about 80 politicians and business leaders who met at the Holiday Inn on Grand Island for a status report on the 18-month-old trade pact.

Western New York can become a free-trade model and hopefully influence the policies of the U.S. and Canadian governments, he said.

"We have the chance to grab the leadership role in free trade. We can set ourselves up as the free-trade trouble-shooters, the experts at solving problems," Simonson said.

The Lewiston Republican was one of several speakers to address a meeting of the Western New York Canada Council, a group that advises the Western New York Economic Development Corp. and the state Department of Economic Development about strategies for capitalizing on the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement.

All the speakers emphasized that Western New York's eight counties must continue to work together and cooperate with neighboring Ontario if the region is to reap the full benefits of freer trade with Canada.

In the last few years, politicians, bankers and business people in Western New York have banded together first to lure Canadian companies south of the border and later to tackle problems, like gridlock at the international bridges.

"The approach we've taken so far has been a regional approach to the Free Trade Agreement," said County Executive Gorski. "That concept -- a regional approach -- has to be the watchword in which we operate in the future," he said.

Gorski and Simonson both characterized the formation of the Canada Council as an important step in bringing the two counties together and eliminating previous animosity.

"We have been ahead of the Free Trade Agreement, not behind it," Simonson said. "We have been proactive rather than reactive."

The Niagara County leader painted a rosy picture of the region's future because of increased trade with Canada. He stressed that Western New Yorkers have benefited from the agreement despite the fact that it won't be fully implemented until Jan. 1, 1999.

For example, about 1,000 new jobs are being created each month in Erie and Niagara counties, while the unemployment rate has dropped 30 percent in the last year, Simonson said.

Niagara County also is experiencing an unprecedented construction boom with the number of building permits increasing by 52 percent over a two-year period, he said.

"Western New York, once considered the armpit of the Northeast, will become the envy of the world," Simonson said. "All eyes will focus on us as the gateway to the North American market."

Niagara County's sales tax revenue is up by 15 percent over last year, with companies specializing in furniture, gasoline and cars reporting healthy profits, he said.

Despite many other issues like budget deficits and political instability confronting Washington and Ottawa, both governments want to ensure the Free Trade Agreement is mutually beneficial, said Mike Dietsch, an Ontario politician who is chairman of a regional legislative roundtable.

Judith Kossy, WNYEDC's president, emphasized that in the last year many steps have been taken to ease problems stemming from free trade. She explained that numerous studies have been undertaken to examine traffic on bridges and highways, upgrading local rail lines and improving airports.

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