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PARTNERSHIP ASSAULTS TAXES, POWER RATES

The area's largest business group is scheduled to announce a new assault today on the high local taxes, expensive power rates and other impediments that have been a drag on the region's economy and have handcuffed the $27 million Buffalo Niagara Enterprise marketing campaign.

The Buffalo Niagara Partnership is attempting to rally the private sector to push government leaders into making the politically sensitive decisions that might help attract more business investment and jobs.

"We need more intense broad-based support from the private sector so that it's easier for the public leaders to make these changes," said Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

The group's Buffalo Niagara Now initiative is designed to improve the batting average of the regional marketing effort. The economic revitalization campaign, established in 1999 through private and public donations, promotes the region as a place to locate businesses. But the effort has yet to land any significant deals.

The region is losing projects because of cost factors, such as property taxes, which businesses consider very carefully when locating new offices and factories, said BNE President Thomas Kucharski.

The Buffalo Niagara Now goals were established based on a "competitiveness analysis" of the local market conducted for the BNE by a national business consultant.

"There's readily accessible, comparable data out there on a variety of the factors that companies are interested in," Kucharski said. "We probably have more red flag, upfront eliminators based on endemic cost factors and overriding demographic data than any of the markets we compete with."

For example, Buffalo Niagara has the highest commercial electric rates, at $13.20 per kilowatt hour, among the 34 markets it typically competes against, according to BNE data gathered from the Edison Electric Institute.

The national economic slowdown in corporate expansion and relocation projects this year has one silver lining for Buffalo Niagara, Kucharski said. The pause gives the region a chance to improve local factors before the pace of corporate activity picks up again, he said.

"Right now, we've been given a little bit of a reprieve and we're getting our act together. If we can just work on eliminating some of these factors, or even mitigate them in some way, we'll be in a much better competitive position," he said.

Buffalo Niagara Now has nine goals. Some are political, such as getting local governments and schools to collaborate on services, while others focus on luring developers to build housing in downtown Buffalo and tourist venues in Niagara Falls.

Nine committees, all led by business people, are being established to create business plans for achieving the goals.

"Every quarter, we're going to publicly report how we're doing, including who is helping us and what issues or people are standing in the way," Rudnick said.

Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution's Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, said similar private sector leadership has been vital in the renewal of Cleveland and other U.S. cities.

Successful private sector initiatives have not just stimulated dialogue, they have also paid for offices for the lobbying and administrative work to advance the agenda, he said.

"A lot of these issues, such as downtown housing, they sound easy, but they're really quite complicated in the implementation, and they require constant vigilance to get things done," Katz said.

The Buffalo Niagara area has seen numerous plans and committees come and go, but local business leaders think the climate is ripe for results for several reasons.

The private sector has invested in the BNE, and does not want its money wasted, and the public sector is loosely united behind a growing coalition led by Republican County Executive Joel Giambra and Democrat Anthony Masiello, Buffalo's mayor.

Dianne Bennett, a partner in the Buffalo law firm Hodgson Russ, said Buffalo Niagara Now is structured to get results. "You've got individuals here with their names and reputations on the line and they have identifiable goals, which can be measured, so they will be held accountable," said Bennett, who will lead one of the committees.

The partnership, which has more than 3,200 member businesses, is looking for additional volunteers to serve on committees.

"Now is the time for everybody to step up. We need to be collaborating together and mentoring new leaders and having everybody at the table. That's how we'll be successful," Kucharski said.

The nine goals were developed after the partnership spent weeks getting feedback from various local civic groups.

Mark Hamister, who owns an elder care company and the Buffalo Destroyers and is the incoming chairman of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said the effort primarily focuses on factors under local control.

"What we've done is identified those characteristics which we can do the most about and can have a significant impact," Hamister said.

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