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VIRGINIA 'TEAM' TRIES TO LURE AREA FIRMS

Some viewed them as economic interlopers -- hungry marketers trolling the Buffalo region's business community in hopes of landing new jobs and investment for the Mid-Atlantic.

Others said a recent three-day visit by economic development officials from Virginia illustrates how fierce the regional marketing game has become -- and how important it is to strengthen the area's business-retention efforts.

Steven Ulmer, the president of an Amherst manufacturer of sprinkler systems, received an odd letter six weeks ago. It was from the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and it announced that a "team" of representatives would be visiting the Buffalo region this week in hopes of meeting with business managers.

The letter trumpeted that many companies have picked Virginia as the site for new facilities, taking advantage of low taxes, incentive programs and a quality labor pool.

"My initial reaction was that the enemy is coming into town and that we need to man the fortress," said Ulmer, who heads Davis-Ulmer Sprinkler Co.

He then received two follow-up calls from Virginia officials who were eager to meet with him -- calls that went unreturned. Ulmer said the company has been based in Buffalo for 54 years and has local roots going back more than eight decades. Davis-Ulmer has offices in Rochester, Syracuse, Jamestown and Corning, but Ulmer said the company has no plans to head south. In fact, the company is currently expanding its Amherst facility.

Gregory H. Wingfield, president of the Greater Richmond Partnership, which took part in this week's site visit, couldn't pinpoint the number of Western New York companies that received letters. But he said he wouldn't be surprised if more than a hundred pitches were mailed as marketers tried to line up meetings with up to 15 companies.

"It takes quite a few inquiries before you can fill up your dance card," said Wingfield, who estimated that Virginia officials had discussions with a dozen or so local businesses.

The Virginia Economic Development Partnership coordinated a week-long foray into New York that included stops in the Schnectady-Troy area. Agency officials did not return calls to comment.

Business recruitment efforts by state and regional marketing offices are not unusual, but the president of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce said Virginia's use of letters, phone calls and site visits is the most aggressive campaign she's witnessed.

"For a long time, we've been hearing from our companies that they're getting feelers -- brochures and in some cases, phone calls. But this is the most focused effort I've ever seen," said Colleen DiPirro.

Thomas A. Kucharski, the man who is leading a business-driven campaign to create new jobs and investment in the Buffalo region, said it happens more often than some would guess. The president of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise said Virginia is known for being one of the most aggressive regions when it comes to trying to land business expansions or relocations.

"But they're not alone. There are a growing number of states and communities across the country that are setting up shop with the sole purpose of stealing businesses," he said. "This kind of the thing is really frowned upon in our circles. You don't make friends that way."

But Wingfield is making no apologies, noting that Virginia has also been a target for other regions hoping to expand their economies by encouraging Richmond-area businesses to expand or relocate elsewhere.

Wingfield estimated that Virginia launches 10 to 12 of these blitzes annually across the country. Last year, the Greater Richmond Partnership was credited with helping 33 companies to locate facilities in the region. The expansions or relocations created nearly 2,000 jobs and $171 million in investment.

While an argument could be made that Virginia's in-your-face marketing tactics are yielding results, Kucharski said the BNE will approach its job-creation mission in a more targeted fashion. As it aims to create 50,000 net new jobs over five years, the BNE will focus on attracting specific high-growth industries, participating in major trade shows and continuing a high-profile advertising campaign to enhance the region's image.

"These are old-style pilfering practices," Kucharski said of the recent Virginia offensive. "We're going to take a higher road."

Paul F. Ciminelli, a local developer who is the BNE's vice chair of strategic planning, said several companies who lease space in Ciminelli Development's office parks have received pitches from Virginia. He predicted that as Western New York continues to "promote its successes," other communities might put Buffalo on their list of targets as they search for growing companies. That's why Ciminelli said he's pleased some local agencies, including the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. and the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, are strengthening their business-retention programs.

"First and foremost, you have to protect what you have," said Ciminelli. "This shows us how aggressive we have to be when it comes to retaining companies."

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