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EXPANSION TAKES FLIGHT AT NIAGARA

Niagara Falls' "Attracting the World" slogan took on new meaning this week as the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority picked a Spanish firm to run the city's airport.

Cash and experience won this competition for Cintra Concesiones de Infrastructuras de Transporte S.A., which offered a deal that was clearly superior to that put together by the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency. Both the NFTA and a six-member community review panel made the right choice in selecting Cintra.

IDA leaders may be disappointed that there will be less of a local voice in shaping future development at the airport, but the investment Cintra promises to make in the facility far outweighs any hesitation on that score. The corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Spain's largest construction and development firm with $3.5 billion in assets, promised to bank $10.1 million in an up-front development fund by the time it starts operations on July 1, and pledged at least another $7 million in the first 25 years of its 99-year lease.

NFTA leaders said the Spanish firm, which will use local employees, submitted a much more specific plan than the IDA group, and actually requested a lower incentive subsidy than the NFTA offered. The IDA group pledged a $1.6 million start-up fund and a $500,000 IDA grant, and planned to plow airport revenues back into the project.

Cintra also brought to the table 32 years as a successful transportation concessionaire, a record that includes the $2.5 billion purchase of a 65 percent interest in the toll highway that circles Toronto and management of nine Mexican regional airports -- among them the tourism destination of Cozumel. NFTA officials say the larger-airport experience gave Cintra an edge over the IDA's partner, American Airport Technologies, which runs smaller business-type airport terminals.

Cintra hasn't wasted any time. Company officials already have met with one commercial airline, and are targeting 350,000 passengers -- most on charters -- within five years.

Although this deal still needs Federal Aviation Administration approval, after comment from the Air Force units that share the facility, the potential for growth and ancillary development seems solid. The IDA gains a tool, if not a management contract, that's well in keeping with its mission.

And for the NFTA, which offered the performance-linked 99-year lease as a sign of its commitment to privatization and Niagara County, a promise made is now a promise kept. The prospect of competition between airports as well as between airlines should benefit not only Niagara Falls, but air travelers here and tourists from around the world.

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