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The Buffalo marketplace faces two major challenges this year, and they're not much different than in years past, according to the region's leading business organization: Improve the business climate and market the region.

"Specific projects may change year in and year out, but our focus has always been creating more jobs and expanding investments in the market place. That's our job," said Andrew Rudnick, Buffalo Niagara Partnership's president and chief executive officer. "That's what economic development is, and that's the job our 3,500 members want us to do."

Rudnick says the region's economy has improved under the Partnership's direction.

"Overall I think what we've created is a bigger, smarter and more effective private sector to tackle things needed to make the marketplace more competitive," he said. "State taxes are being reduced year in and year out, and the local taxes are moving from going up to going down. And every political person in this region has put reducing taxes and making the upstate marketplace more competitive as the highest item on platforms. That's a direct result of our advocacy work of being loud, being aggressive and in the faces of public officials."

Julie Hazzan, director of communications for the Partnership, added: "Things have gotten better since we formed seven years ago. We have seen a huge increase in awareness for the need for regionalism, in the need for lowering taxes at the state and local levels and in the need to change regulations."

Rudnick also pointed to successes in air service and key institutions. "Air fares are lower and air service is better because we have partnered with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to do that. Key institutions like Roswell Park are growing, and like Julie said, more people working together and believing the region's growth that has to occur."

New York State is said to be a tough place to do business because of taxes and regulations, Rudnick said, and one of the association's main goals this year is to continue attacking those obstacles in Albany.

"Government relations, especially Albany-focused advocacy, is a major part of our job," he said. "Advance Upstate New York is the way we're carrying out the aggressive Albany-focused advocacy."

Advance Upstate New York is a program set up last year by business leaders from Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse aimed at improving chances of winning legislative reforms that will help the region's sluggish economy. It is a crucial tool in the fight against "state legislation that has terribly hurt Western New York businesses," Hazzan said.

"We're going to focus on repealing the gross receipts tax, a tax on energy use which the governor just announced he would also like to have happen; repealing the WICKS law, a mandate from the state that boosts construction costs on public projects; reforming workers compensation because premiums here are 20 percent higher than the national average; and establishing competitive air service for upstate New York," she said.

The Partnership will also focus on federal issues that clearly restrict marketplace growth, Rudnick and Hazzan said. One such issue is Continental One, a proposed highway trade corridor from Toronto to Miami. Supporters say the highway would result in quicker and more efficient transportation of goods.

And that's just one of the benefits, Rudnick said. "Having that kind of trade openly flowing through this market would be a big plus. This region's economic success and failures have been a direct result of its location and in the era of North American free trade, the opening of that highway is key. We're talking about taking advantage of flow that's there already."

If the region is to be competitive, getting association members more familiar with modern technology is another must, Hazzan said. "In the coming year, we're looking at the development of an e-commerce component to the Web site and helping our members become more e-commerce savvy."

Laying the groundwork for work force development, the Partnership also will concentrate on the WNY Works initiative focused on collecting data from employers in the marketplace on what skill sets they need or are finding lacking in the work force, Hazzan said. The data will be relayed to the educational and training institutions.

"We're devoting enough resources and steering students in a way so they will stay here for jobs," she said.

Fueled by a "real interest in improving the quality of the work force," the association will continue to work on the development of charter schools, Hazzan said.

"They will not solve everything, but they are a piece of the puzzle to improve the overall public education which helps companies here today and those looking to come here because Buffalo has a very progressive education system. You have to try those options," she said.

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