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Twenty western Niagara County public officials gathered around Rep. John J. LaFalce's Republican opponent Wednesday and called for a candidates forum on the area's economy.

Some of them called it a candidates debate.

They took pains to say that it was "not a political issue" and that they weren't endorsing either candidate. But the news conference at Niagara Falls International Airport was a bold attempt to capture the Town of Tonawanda Democrat's attention -- and perhaps a promise of federal dollars -- before Election Day. GOP candidate Brett Sommer is challenging the veteran LaFalce for the 29th Congressional District seat.

Sommer of North Tonawanda immediately accepted the Wheatfield Business Association's invitation to a public forum. And LaFalce, who could not be reached Wednesday evening, reportedly told the group earlier that he would be willing to talk about dates for a forum.

LaFalce was not invited to the news conference. He agreed Tuesday to attend a forum on eastern Niagara County, sponsored by the Lockport Chamber of Commerce.

"I am grateful and pleased that the elected leaders of Niagara County have joined me to challenge my 26-year incumbent opponent to talk about the issues," Sommer said in a statement before the news conference.

That was as close as anyone came to hinting that Sommer was their man.

"This is not a political issue," said Republican Timothy Demler, Town of Niagara supervisor, who acted as emcee for the group that gathered around a podium in the otherwise deserted terminal. "It is about concerns that we elected officials have about economic-development opportunities in Niagara County and particularly this end of the county. We are asking for an open discussion with our congressman before the election."

The airport itself was the major economic item on their plate. After that came the flooding of Cayuga Creek.

"We are not endorsing a candidate," Demler added. "We are asking input from both candidates at a forum. And we are asking help from whoever is elected in November to that seat."

LaFalce has come under fire for challenging a lease granted by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to a Spanish firm, Cintra Concessiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte, to run the airport for 99 years. The goal is to revive the airport after 30 years of neglect by the NFTA.

Sommer tried to impute guilt to LaFalce.

"Throughout his entire career in Congress, this airport has been dormant," Sommer said in his written statement. "For nearly two years, leaders like (State) Sen. George Maziarz have been negotiating in an attempt to rid the taxpayers of a $2 million per year liability, and at the end Mr. LaFalce finally speaks up."

Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda, congratulated the Wheatfield Business Association for sponsoring an economic forum.

"This airport is not the answer to all of our ills, but it's certainly a positive step forward," he said.

Republican Sandra Jo Maslen, Town of Lewiston supervisor, called it a regional issue for a region that "rises together and falls together."

"I have questions about the Cintra operation," she said. "But I'd at least like (the concerns) brought to the forefront and discussed. So a debate is absolutely essential."

Also speaking were Mayor Mary Kabasakalian of North Tonawanda and Supervisor Steven C. Richards of the Town of Niagara, both Republicans.

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