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Foreign dignitaries arriving at Buffalo Niagara International Airport by the planeload. Local bars and restaurants awash in talk of global trade.

Call it a dream -- but it could happen.

Buffalo is one of about 20 U.S. cities under consideration to be host of the 1999 World Trade Organization's top-level Ministerial Conference, city officials confirmed Wednesday.

The prestigious meeting is expected to draw more than 4,000 participants from more than 135 countries, including 2,500 high-level trade and government figures, local officials have been told.

"This is the winner. This is the Stanley Cup," Vincent J. LoVallo, Mayor Masiello's chief of operations, said Wednesday, reaching for a way to describe the weeklong conference.

Masiello said, "There's no better place for the World Trade Organization's meeting than right here in Buffalo, an international trade capital."

President Clinton addressed the organization's recently concluded ministerial conference in Geneva, Switzerland, and the United States was chosen as the host nation of the next meeting.

The session now is scheduled for late November or early December 1999, according to State Department officials.

In preparation, State Department representatives will visit Buffalo Sept. 14-16 to scout out local facilities and check on accommodations, according to Deborah T. Curtis, sales director for the Greater Buffalo Convention & Visitors Bureau.

And, while Buffalo is still a long shot to be picked as the host city, Ms. Curtis told city and county officials Wednesday that it's nice to be mentioned along with such contenders as Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles.

"What an opportunity! . . . Buffalo is still in the running," Ms. Curtis said in a letter to Masiello outlining the discussions with the State Department's Office of International Conferences.

Buffalo convention officials offered the city's bid in July after State Department officials contacted local convention bureaus around the country and asked who might be interested in playing host to the conference.

"We're really excited. They (the Office of International Conferences) hold about 400 meetings a year. When we make a good impression on them, we're bound to get something tangible out of this," Ms. Curtis said.

About 40 cities initially expressed interest, but nearly half of them have been weeded out, leaving about 20 still under consideration, a State Department spokesman said Wednesday.

Some larger cities, like San Francisco, could not accept the invitation because of other commitments.

Those remaining range from Baton Rouge, La., to Washington, D.C., and include such nearby cities as Detroit, Akron, Ohio, and Toledo, Ohio.

Top State Department and Commerce Department officials are expected to help pick the host city sometime in late December from a list of about 10 finalists, according to conference organizers.

Why Buffalo?

"When you look at the criteria they're listing, it makes sense, because we have what they're looking for," said Stephen T. Banko, Masiello's communications director.

For instance, Banko said, Buffalo should have no trouble meeting the language requirements, given the ample number of universities in the area.

The host city must be able to provide simultaneous interpretations in eight languages, according to the State Department.

Ms. Curtis said federal officials initially expressed concerns about the ability of Buffalo's airport to handle the flood of high-level foreign officials who would be traveling to the conference, and questions have been raised about the number of first-class hotel rooms required to accommodate those attending the conference.

Other considerations include whether the Buffalo Convention Center would be able to provide enough meeting space.

"We're pushing the limits . . . But we have already spoken with Niagara Falls, Canada, and the City of Niagara Falls to line up enough hotel rooms. Both will be joining us with the effort," Ms. Curtis said.

In the end, Buffalo may have another ace in the hole. The State Department scouting team that arrives here next month will be headed by David S. Wick, administrative officer in the Office of International Conferences. Wick is a 1960 graduate of Kenmore West High School, Ms. Curtis said.

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