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You may not know the name Ronald Coan the way you know the name Dennis Gorski.

But that soon could change as Coan, the current county economic development coordinator, takes over next month as executive director of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.

People will discover that a quiet demeanor -- the man looks more like a university professor -- masks the tenacity of a pit bull.

That, combined with the non-political trait of sticking his neck out when he feels he's right, makes Coan, 42, invaluable as head of the agency that plays a major role in insuring Erie County's economic heart continues beating at a steady rhythm.

"I truly lusted after the ECIDA executive director job," Coan said. "I recognize the agency's importance and its opportunity. That (the executive director) is a very powerful position -- and I mean that in the best sense of the term -- to effect change in the region."

The Boston, Mass.-area native's background combines academics and what he calls "real life" jobs. Working in the real world, however, taught him that taking an unpopular stand is not always best for career advancement, but does mean a clear conscience.

In 1976, Coan's first job, in Kirksville, Mo., combined academia with government: He was both director of the public administration program at Northeast Missouri State University and an assistant to the Kirksville city manager.

He left the position when a conflict developed with the town mayor and city council over a hazardous waste dump. The politicians wanted the dump and its potential economic gains nearby. Coan saw possible problems placing such a facility over abandoned mines.

Fortunately for Erie County, when Coan determined in 1979 he had had it with "real life" and that academia was his calling, one of the two institutions then looking for someone with his background -- he has doctorates in public administration and political science -- was Canisius College.

A week after interviewing, Coan was the new chairman of the college's Urban Studies Department.

During the next eight years, "the doctor" as he is referred to by some, combined the role of an academician with a desire to make things happen in the community.

"I was a community activist," Coan says simply.

But his initial frustration with politics in Missouri soon was tempered by the academic life, and Coan realized he missed government's challenges.

In 1986, he determined Erie County was poised for big change. About five months before Gorski announced his candidacy for county executive, Coan called him and said: "If you run, I'd like to help." When Gorski won in 1987, Coan joined the administration as economic development coordinator.

"Ron's qualifications were three," said Gorski. "Obviously, the quality of his academic expertise was excellent, but he was both a professor and had a working knowledge of government. Then, there was his work ethic, exceeded by none.

"Finally, there was the human component. He's not an academician, not a politician, and he's able to develop the interpersonal relationships needed to get things done."

Coan's work habits and ability to work with others were needed when he became the county's economic development coordinator. For one thing, the position was newly attached to the Department of Environment and Planning, rather than directly linked to the county executive's office. Also, what exactly the coordinator should do and could do were gray areas.

"Ron is one of four people I rely on to carry out policy and his division had the greatest potential for self-definition," said Richard Tobe, environment and planning commissioner. "We carved out what his role would be and I quickly learned what a ball of fire Ron was."

Among the projects Coan has made his business:

Developing working relationships with the 48 economic development-related agencies within the county.

Developing the county executive's position regarding the U.S.-Canada free trade agreement.

Involvement in the reorganization of the Greater Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Then there was the memorable June 1988 request from Gorski.

"The county executive asked me what I knew about the World University Games," Coan said. "I didn't know a thing. He asked if I would like to get involved with the Games. I said I hate sports. He asked again if I'd like to get involved. I said yes."

Coan obviously overcame a distaste for sporting events. He's vice chairman of Buffalo's Games' effort and serves on the executive, finance and public finance committees. He had a hand in getting Gov. Cuomo to commit $27 million to the Games.

Now the former university professor and government program implementer is turning his attention to the ECIDA. He's already plotting new directions he'd like to take the agency. He readily admits everything hinges on winning the backing of his board, a disparate group of public and private, business and labor officials. It is a group he intends to get to know very well.

Coan sees at least three areas he wants the the ECIDA to look at, to fill niches not currently served by other organizations.

Those include enhancing the county's role in the area of international importing and exporting, the preparation and training of a rapidly changing work force, and telecommunications -- plugging Buffalo into the worldwide telecommunications network.

Will Coan be successful in his move to expand the role of the ECIDA? It is entirely possible, since the agency was created by the state with broad powers.

Do his wide-ranging ideas, which some say are way off base for an economic development agency, make sense? A look at his quest for a doctorate degree provides an answer.

In 1976, Coan's doctoral dissertation at Miami (of Ohio) University combined his public administration and political science majors by applying American public administration principles to the Soviet Union's bureaucracy.

He concluded the Soviet's system was subject to the same basic rules as American bureaucracies, meaning sometime in the future massive change would occur in the Soviet Union.

Thirteen years ago, the idea was ludicrous. Today, prophetic is more descriptive.

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