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New York Gov. George E. Pataki and Ontario Premier Michael Harris signed an agreement today to work together to increase binational trade and tourism and to streamline border crossing along the Niagara Frontier.

The agreement capped the first economic summit meeting between New York and Ontario, which began Monday in Niagara Falls, Ont.

"We have so much in common," Pataki said during the signing of the agreement in theAdams Mark Hotel in downtown Buffalo. "It's mind-boggling that it has taken us 150 years to come to this point." Ontario has been a province that long.

The agreement comes amid a spate of development projects announced recently along the Niagara Frontier. Pataki has pledged to bring casinos to Niagara Falls and Buffalo, while Ontario will undertake construction of a four-lane highway from Fort Erie to the outskirts of Toronto.

Pataki and Harris minimized differences over competing casinos and conflicting Peace Bridge designs, while pledging that cooperation will spur economic development and job growth on both sides of the border. New York's prospective casinos could help draw tourists to the entire area instead of simply competing for gambling revenue now going to Ontario, Harris said.

"Casinos on the New York side can enhance the attractiveness (of the region) for people who want a gaming experience as part of a holiday or a convention," Harris said.

Pataki called for the United States and Canada to build "continental highway" stretching from Toronto to Miami. The idea linked with Harris' announcement Monday that Ontario will pursue a new four-lane highway from Fort Erie to outskirts of Toronto.

Businesses have long advocated cross-border cooperation to harness the economic potential of the binational urban region stretching from Rochester to Toronto along the crescent of Lake Ontario.

The backing of Pataki and Harris might now give the idea the clout necessary to bring results, some business leaders said.

"The important thing is people are paying attention," said Brian Keating, regional president of HSBC Bank USA. "I live in Canada in the summer, and it can be rough crossing that border."

Pataki said he will push Washington for more inspectors and inspector lanes at crossing points to alleviate bottlenecks. In the longer run, changes in customs and immigration rules should move the work away from the border.

Transportation studies have found that trucks idling in line to clear customs represent a huge waste of time and resources while emitting exhaust fumes.

"It's the right time for us to seize this opportunity," Pataki said. "The old ways of doing things have to give way. . . . It's no longer Buffalo competing with Toronto, we're competing (globally) with Sao Paulo and Rome."

The agreement envisions forming public-private working groups to continue efforts to achieve bi-national goals.

Businesses efforts will be critical in bringing about economic cooperation, Pataki said. He cited tourism and biotechnology among the industries that could benefit from cooperation on projects and promotion spanning the border.

More than 400 dignitaries gathered for dinner Monday in the Sheraton Fallsview Hotel in Niagara Falls, Ont., to begin the summit.

"We're not going to just compete, which is inevitable," Pataki said during his opening remarks Monday, "but we're also going to cooperate and attract better opportunities for all of us. It may have taken 150 years, but now we're in the 21st century."

Pataki praised Harris for his commitment to free enterprise at home, free trade to expand cross-border opportunities and protection of the environment.

Harris told Canadians that the governor is known in New York for cutting taxes and cutting red tape, promoting welfare workfare and creating jobs in the private sector.

"We're both in our second terms, our second mandates," Harris went on. "We're both for eliminating barriers to free trade. We're here to expand business, trade opportunities and other things to help us compete in the 21st century. The global economy isn't simply a concept, it is a reality."

Pressed for specifics during a news conference outside the banquet hall, Pataki predicted that when Ontario and New York "speak with once voice," both federal governments will more readily grant such requests as expanded customs lanes on the international bridges.

Harris said border crossings also can be quickened with preclearance arrangements and an identification-card system.

Pataki told reporters that 500,000 French tourists visit Quebec each year and that cooperation in the Niagara region could bring many of them here as well.

Demonstrators outside the hotel included a dozen residents of the Hickory Woods subdivision in South Buffalo, picketing to urge Pataki to help with their environmental cleanup.
Staff reporter Anthony Cardinale contributed to this report.

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