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TRADE GROUPS IN AREA FACING PRESSURE TO CONSOLIDATE

Export dollars from cross-border sales fuel an important part of Western New York's economy, business and community leaders agree.

Now, a bevy of trade groups faces new pressure to reach across their own borders and work together, as their reliance on tax dollars increases.

"We absolutely want to see these groups working hand-in-glove together, and . . . to the extent it makes sense, looking at opportunities for consolidation," said Lawrence K. Rubin, Erie County commissioner of Environment and Planning.

He made the remarks following a meeting of the Buffalo Niagara World Trade Center, the region's largest trade promoter. Formerly called the International Trade Council, the organization received a $180,000 county grant last year to help pay a one-time membership fee in the world trade organization.

"We're going to look at results, return on investment . . . to demonstrate that what we do really does have an impact on the local business community," World Trade Center executive director Holly A. Sinnott said.

The county spends more than $170,000 a year to help fund trade groups and promote international ties. Among the recipients are the World Trade Center and Buffalo Niagara WorldConnect Inc., which helps coordinate visits by foreign officials and business people.

In addition, the business group Buffalo Niagara Enterprise and the county industrial development agency have a partial focus on cross-border ties, Rubin said.

And those are just the organizations with an Erie County affiliation. Atlantic Corridor USA Inc. in Buffalo uses federal funds to promote ties with Europe, while the privately funded BorderNet Alliance is seeking federal and state aid to promote a trade crescent from Toronto to Buffalo to Syracuse. And the U.S. Commerce Department runs an export assistance center in Buffalo that aids businesses seeking distributors and export opportunities worldwide.

Funding for trade groups came under scrutiny last year when Atlantic Corridor was labeled as federal pork in a report by Citizens Against Government Waste in Washington, D.C.

Directors of several organizations said on Thursday they've renewed efforts to coordinate work and avoid duplication. Among other efforts, the World Trade Center is working more closely with the federal Export Assistance Center, sharing office space one day a week, Sinnott said.

But whether the groups' cooperation will extend to merging with their peers is largely untested.

Both the World Trade Center and BorderNet aim to harness business ties across the U.S.-Canada border.

"We're going to have to have some discussions with BorderNet . . . to find ways to work together and not overlap," Sinnott said.

Willie Moskowitz, executive director of BorderNet, said his organization has a broader focus than the Buffalo-Niagara group, covering a trade corridor of 25,000 square miles from Syracuse to Toronto.

"We're going to be working with all kinds of smaller regional and bi-national organizations," he said. BorderNet, whose $200,000 annual expenses are paid by foundations and business members, is seeking government commitments on both sides of the border for permanent funding, he said.

One organization that has gone the merger route is Buffalo Niagara WorldConnect, which saved significantly by combining two predecessor organizations, executive director Brad Mazon said.

Savings of $500 a month in rent and payroll processing "are significant for a not-for-profit," Mazon said. With a staff of four, WorldConnect - which combined the Council for International Visitors and the Buffalo Council on World Affairs - organizes visits for about 400 visitors a year, most of them through U.S. State Department programs. Federal grants supply most of WorldConnect's $250,000 budget, with Erie County contributing 11 percent, Mazon said.

The county is requiring groups that receive aid to file reports this year detailing ways to cooperate and consolidate, Rubin said.

"There really should be a systematic approach to collaboration," he said. "We don't have the resources to be duplicating effort."

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