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Development of the underutilized Niagara Falls International Airport is critical to plans to turn Niagara Falls into a world-class tourist destination, the head of the Niagara Falls Redevelopment Corp. says.

Consequently, Edwin A. Cogan, the Canadian businessman heading the redevelopment effort, said last week, the airport is becoming the group's No. 1 priority.

"I believe within 10 years the American side can surpass the Canadian side," in part because of the airport, Cogan said, but only if the opportunity is seized now.

He believes what local leaders have long held -- that development of the airport is crucial to creating a vital local economy.

The airport's long runway enables it to accept the size planes that transport international visitors as well as goods, said Charles P. Steiner, president of the Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.

The airport's proximity to American and Canadian highway systems links it to many major population centers within 500 miles, or one day's drive, Cogan noted, making it a natural candidate to become a freight transportation hub.

Developing the cargo potential has figured in every airport study done in the past 25 years, Steiner said, but so far efforts to execute the concept have fallen short.

Steiner said maybe Cogan and his team, with their experience and expertise in transportation and airports, can pull it off.

Cogan and Brian A. Meilleur, president of the Niagara Falls Redevelopment Corp., recently negotiated a settlement in an $800 million dispute at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.

Meilleur said the negotiations required a thorough knowledge of all aspects of airport operations.

"It's mind-boggling what an airport does for a city. It's not just . . . jobs. It's the movement of goods and people," Meilleur said.

At stake for Cogan is the $130 million or more his group has promised to invest over the next eight years to turn Niagara Falls into a world-class tourist destination. In part, he wants to make it easy for the huge market of Asian tourists to get here to enjoy the entertainment and accommodation facilities he plans to develop. He envisions $399 packages, including air fare and accommodations, to fill hotels in the height of the winter off-season.

Freight also is a growing business, and freight creates manufacturing jobs, he said.

Steiner said possible spinoffs include development of warehousing and assembly facilities around the airport.

Cogan said he already has been asked to look into development of an airport in St. Catharines, Ont.

"We don't have to go out and build other airports. We have this piece," Steiner said. "It doesn't have to be duplicated. We have it."

Cogan said his group has been having some positive talks with officials of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, dominated by Erie County interests that Niagara County leaders have accused of allowing the Niagara Falls Airport to wither and die.

Cogan said his group wants to manage and operate the airport. Niagara County Legislator Lee Simonson, R-Lewiston, believes the county could gain control of the airport from the NFTA if it had a plan and an operator like the Cogan group.

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