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ENCOURAGING SIGNS OF CHANGE

In reading last week's series of articles on leadership in this region, it's hard to shake a strange, unsettling sense that after years of false starts, bad luck and worse decisions, things could actually start improving here.

For those who don't remember, that feeling is called optimism. Vague optimism, yes. Optimism subject to setbacks, no doubt. But optimism, nonetheless, fed by the fact that this hidebound region is finally starting to produce leaders who can break away from the destructive patterns of the past.

This region already has taken the first step toward a turnaround, by identifying its problems. A public no longer willing simply to settle for the status quo is increasingly involved in public decision-making, and seizing community leadership roles without waiting to be asked by an ensconced establishment. And strong leadership is increasingly recognized, because this community is hungry for it.

Much of this is evidenced by the 1999 election of Joel Giambra. The county executive, a Democrat-turned-Republican, has turned County Hall upside down in his bid to change a status quo that led this region into the economic wilderness.

Giambra's election seems to have marked a turning point, but it goes deeper than that. For a Republican to win in a heavily Democratic county required an about-face by voters -- a sense that the need for real change was more urgent than the impulses of party politics.

But there also was an emergence of grass-roots leadership, fed by frustration but fixed on the idea that we can do better. Energized by issues, the young professionals of the New Millennium Group and others simply assumed leadership roles and demanded changes.

That ground-level leadership is something new here, too. From public insistence on a better design for a new Peace Bridge, to activism on behalf of the unearthed Erie Canal slip, to the flood of opposition to a politically disgraceful county redistricting plan, Western New Yorkers have begun demanding that their leaders grow up. Good thing, because that's the only way it will happen.

A third element in this region's leadership picture also is changing for the better. A relatively disinterested and uninvolved private sector is giving way to more forceful business leadership, active in issues from the quality of local schools to the retention of sports franchises -- and efforts to lure new businesses and new jobs to this area through more aggressive regional marketing and stepped-up pressure on lawmakers to erode some of the barriers to prosperity.

The leadership series highlighted a number of serious problems, as well, but virtually all of them share a common solution. Charities suffering from a lack of money? Fix the economy. Not enough high-level talent to sit on area boards? Fix the economy. No headquarters of big corporations here? Fix the economy!

Of course, that leads back to the matter of leadership. Fixing the economy requires the right leaders -- people committed to the task of lowering the costs of doing business in this region, whether those costs are measured in exorbitant tax rates, dizzying electric bills, government duplication or union excesses.

Certainly, some improvements can be made now, even in a weak economy. Something is wrong when women and minorities remain painfully underrepresented on boards of directors, for example. With effort, problems such as those can be eased relatively quickly. It will take outreach, but the effort is necessary, both to plumb the depths of this region's talent pool and to give as many of its constituencies as possible a clear stake in this region's success.

While it remains up to the leaders to lead, the public's role also is crucial in continuing to improve the quality of this region's leadership and, therefore, its prospects for the future.

Young Western New Yorkers must continue to emerge as effective and dynamic leaders deeply involved in community life, whether their leadership is based in the public or the private sectors. And the public, in general, has two important additional roles: to pitch in, itself, and to hold its chosen leaders to a high standard.

The change demanded by the voting public at the polls 19 months ago is a tenuous thing. Unless Western New Yorkers continue to require attention to the region's fundamental problems, between elections and during subsequent ones, today's growing optimism could easily become tomorrow's disappointment.

Directions don't change easily, and for many years to come there will be pressure by some to return to familiar old ways, destructive though they are. This region has only begun what will have to be a long journey, and right now a new wind is at our backs.

Winds can change directions, though. All of us -- leaders and those who choose them alike -- need to ensure that we stay on course.

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