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LEADERS FEEL IT'S TIME TO DELIVER ON REGION'S ECONOMIC TURNAROUND

If there was one common theme -- one issue that dominated the 1999 political season and continues into 2000 -- it is the lagging state of the Western New York economy.

Victorious Erie County executive candidate Joel A. Giambra set that tone back in February while announcing his bid against incumbent Democrat Dennis T. Gorski at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Too many of Erie County's young people, he said, were forced to leave the area due to a lack of good-paying jobs.

"Our community is in decline because we're losing our youth and the talent they take with them," Giambra said then.

Though Gorski shot back with some impressive economic development accomplishments of his own, the political die had been cast. Giambra had raised the disquieting specter in a way that touched home, and Gorski's 12-year reign in the Rath Building ended.

Now, Giambra and other major political figures such as Mayor Anthony M. Masiello must deliver. In what has become the key element of recent political platforms and contests in Erie County, how the politicians transform promises of economic development into real, live jobs may rank as the most important aspect of any political campaign.

Giambra introduced an entirely new element to that concept last year with his theme of regional cooperation in government. If governments on various levels could work together to share services, he reasoned, then costs -- and eventually taxes -- can be significantly reduced.

And high taxes, the Democrat-turned-Republican said, often rank as the key reason why industry leaves or avoids Western New York.

"I'm firmly convinced no plan to expand our economy can occur unless we are competitive," Giambra said during the campaign.

Already that philososophy is beginning to take shape in the new administration. Bruce L. Fisher, the county executive's new chief of staff, said economic development has commanded center attention in its initial days.

"One indication of the importance of economic development is that our first appointment was Larry Rubin as commissioner of environment and planning," Fisher said. "He was brought on first because of the key economic projects we're looking at."

Fisher said the county expects to assume major roles in continuing to lure a major new engine line to General Motors' Tonawanda Powertrain plant. It also includes involvement in waterfront development, infrastructure improvements to area industrial parks, and an effort to consolidate the area's six industrial development agencies.

"My plan is to work with elected officials and show them the benefits of working together," Giambra said during the campaign. "That will help us prevent what I call intramural competition, of one area poaching jobs from another. I believe if we can join hands we can go out and market our community together."

While the new county administration has also focused on particulars like enhanced job training programs, Fisher said the macro-view still involves an overall effort to cut taxes.

"The policy focus of our administration is to get the cost of government services competitive with the Great Lakes cities which have already experienced this growth -- the ones that have bypassed us," he said. "That's what intermunicipal cooperation has to yield."

For the Giambra administration, that means a three-pronged program of cutting its own costs, streamlining through regional cooperation, and making the pitch for local business.

"We've got to do government's business better so that people have the means and wherewithal to stay here," Fisher said, referring once again to the main theme of Campaign '99.

In addition, for the first time in memory, the administrations of the mayor, county executive and governor are all bound by strong political links that many feel are important in helping government facilitate private-sector development.

"I'm very hopeful of having a great partnership with Joel because I share his vision," Gov. George E. Pataki said recently while visiting Western New York. "As I have a great relationship with Mayor Masiello, we'll be partners in making Buffalo and Erie County stronger."

Because the major names in government here seem to share that vision, all are hopeful that translates into solid accomplishments. For the Masiello administration, that means working with Giambra and Pataki on a number of initiatives, with the Inner Harbor development project topping the list. Besides an attractive gathering place that takes advantage of Buffalo's forgotten waterfront, the plan -- if all goes well -- calls for Adelphia Cable Co. to establish an operations center serving as a foot-of-Main-Street anchor with more than 1,000 employees.

Other public projects Masiello and his City Hall planners eye for 2000 are initial plans for Peace Bridge expansion, development of the Union Ship Canal area, construction of a new access road to the Worthington complex and a major new initiative -- the "Buffalo Byte Belt."

"The City of Buffalo realizes that its future is predicated upon its ability to utilize emerging technology as an economic catalyst and has embraced this industry as a key tool for Buffalo's economic renaissance," Masiello said in his State of the City address.

He said over the last 18 months, six new information technology companies have opened in a downtown area equipped with enough fiber optic capability to handle modern compter-based requirements. That, he says, could prove a major development in the march toward downtown revitalization.

"Many IT businesses have been energized by the explosion of Buffalo's Generation X population who have seized the entrepreneurial spirit of a robust millennial economy and have started their own IT businesses," the mayor said. "It is abundantly clear that Buffalo's younger generation enjoys being downtown and is beginning to claim it as their own workground and playground."

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