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CHANGE IS gradually repainting the employment picture in Erie and Niagara counties, and that change has added a glow to the portrait. Through much of the 1980s, the Niagara Frontier posted high jobless rates, rates well above the statewide average and sometimes the highest of any metropolitan area in New York.

People got used to being first in job losses. Our economic problems have not vanished but, as the May figures point out, the heartening progress that began in very recent years continues.

This is the first year in a decade or so that the Niagara Frontier has sported a monthly unemployment rate below the statewide average. May's 4.6 percent did that. Erie and Niagara counties gained a net 6,200 jobs over the last 12 months (non-farm workers totaled 552,800 in May), a 1.1 percent gain that doubles the statewide average.

Weaknesses, or pockets of slow growth, can be discerned, among them manufacturing (with Fisher-Price's problems) and financial services (problems in the banks). But health and social services, construction and retailing expand at a bracing clip.

As those who get out to the stores and malls might expect, Canadians shopping in Niagara Falls and the large malls around Buffalo are buoying retail employment as well as boosting sales and tax revenues.

After a decade of high joblessness during which too many industries closed or moved away, the continued job growth comforts like a warm breeze off Lake Erie. Still, the Niagara Frontier has a way to go in comparison with other upstate metropolitan areas. May's 4.6 percent jobless rate here compares, for example, with 3.9 percent in Syracuse and 4 percent in Binghamton.

To keep matters in perspective, the Erie-Niagara economy continues strong, with promising signs for the future, particularly if U.S.-Canadian commerce grows. The Niagara Frontier, far from being the most anemic area of the state, now helps shore up a statewide economy weakened by softness in New York City.

Yet our region is not the strongest upstate. We still confront a challenge to create a diverse economy that avoids the worst boom-bust cycles and offers dependable work for growing numbers of Western New Yorkers.

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