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AREA FIRMS, NEW AIRPORT SPREAD WINGS IN '97

Mirroring the strong year for business across the country, Western New York's major business stories for 1997 were predominantly upbeat.

The major story of the year, as selected by the business news staff of The Buffalo News, was the opening of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport terminal, which gave the region a new signature image to impress visiting business people and tourists.

Other positive developments were headed by the decision of one of the Buffalo's leading employers to expand in the city and a wide range of investment coming into the region in tourism-related spending, call center jobs and movie theater expansion.

Here are the top stories of 1997:

1. New airport terminal opens
The long-awaited Buffalo Niagara International Airport terminal made its debut in November, attracting immediate praise from local leaders and the flying public. The $55 million terminal, which replaced the old airport's inconvenient and outdated two-terminal operation, has received rave reviews for everything from its airy architectural design, to its adjacent parking garage, to the variety of its food court.

2. Graphic controls stays in Buffalo
Graphic Controls Corp. ended months of uncertainty about its future in November when it announced it will remain in Buffalo, constructing a new manufacturing facility along Exchange Street and relocating its headquarters staff from its multistory, obsolete Rensselaer Street facility to new waterfront office space. The announcement keeps 630 jobs in the city, but not without a price -- more than $14.5 million from the city, Erie County and New York State via property tax savings, loans, grants and tax credits. That's roughly $23,000 per employee.

3. Niagara Falls investment
An investment group that includes former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca is looking to pump $140 million in private money into tourism facilities like hotels and a convention center over seven years, increasing the city's drawing power. The plan reflects the additional magnet of casino gambling across the river in Niagara Falls, Ont., where a $1 billion (Canadian) $700 million (U.S.) tourism development plan is under way.

4. Call centers expanding
Western New York's blossoming call center industry continued to show strong signs of growth in 1997. TeleTech, a Denver-based telecommunications service provider, built a $10 million Northeast regional call center in Niagara Falls, creating 500 new jobs and promising an additional 250 in the next few years.

International Data Response Corp. of Toronto set up a 300-employee customer service office in down town Buffalo, while Ingram Micro and Softbank Services Group unveiled ambitious expansion plans. Regional call centers currently employ more than 4,000 people, and industry experts think the four major companies could employ nearly 6,000 in Erie and Niagara counties by the year 2000.

5. M&T's parent buys Onbancorp
In one of the largest transactions ever involving a local company, First Empire State Corp., the parent of M&T Bank, agreed to pay $872 million in cash and stock for Syracuse-based Onbancorp, making it the largest deposit holder in upstate New York. M&T, which already has a huge presence on the Niagara Frontier, becomes the No. 1 bank in Syracuse and No. 3 in Rochester; the deal also marks M&T's first foray into Albany and strengthens its Hudson Valley branch network. It also extends M&T's reach into Pennsylvania for the first time.

6. American Axle sold
The Blackstone Group paid $650 million for a majority stake in the auto component manufacturer, which was carved from General Motors' unprofitable Saginaw division in 1994. Now, the popularity of light trucks makes the axle company's future bright, the investment group said. Blackstone is staying the course, keeping Richard E. Dauch in charge of the $2.2 billion company, which employs 2,700 people in Western New York and is Buffalo's largest private employer.

7. Movie screen madness
Some local movie moguls have described it as the rescreening of Western New York. The region witnessed the debut of 42 new movie screens in 1997, bringing the total to more than 130 screens in Erie and Niagara counties. Regal Cinemas of Knoxville, Tenn., was the most aggressive entrant into the local marketplace, opening 16-screen complexes in North Buffalo and Lancaster. It plans additional complexes in Orchard Park in March and a 10-screen complex in Niagara Falls by the end of 1998. Flix Movie Theaters opened a 10-screen complex on Transit Road in Lancaster.

8. Electric industry restructures
Proposals to introduce competition into the state's electric industry have led utilities, including Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. and New York State Electric & Gas Corp., to auction off their generating plants. The plans would offer deep price cuts for big industrial firms and only modest reductions for residential and small business customers.

9. Iimak bought by Paxar
Amherst printing ribbon manufacturer International Imaging Materials was acquired for $228 million in stock by Paxar Corp., a leading maker of apparel identification products. Iimak employs about 700 people, and its new owners have kept its operations here intact.

10. Woolworths closes
F.W. Woolworth Corp.'s June decision to close all 400 of its five-and-dimes across the country struck an especially cruel blow to downtown Buffalo, where the chain has roots dating back 102 years. The Woolworth's at 395 Main St. had a direct link to the S.H. Knox retail chain, which was founded by Seymour Horace Knox, grandfather of late Sabres owner Seymour H. Knox III and his brother, Northrup R. Knox. The local chain helped revolutionize retailing in the United States with its premise of selling a variety of basic goods at an affordable five cents and 10 cents.

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