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A PLAN -- AND A VISION

Western New Yorkers have seen more than their share of grand plans come and go over the years, a discouraging history that may tempt them to relegate the latest one to the circular file rather than allow their hopes to be raised. That would be unfortunate, because the vision presented in a proposal to remake Buffalo deserves careful attention, and for several reasons.

The $800 million plan, generated by the private sector in response to a request from Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, ties money from a Buffalo casino to a dramatically improved city. Among its many significances is that for the first time in recent memory, the region is approaching a higher level of government with not just a hat in hand, but a detailed plan as well.

The proposal to put a casino in downtown Buffalo has never made sense unless the lion's share of the state's 25 percent take was dedicated to economic development here. It's the only real way a casino can benefit the city. But Gov. George E. Pataki has resisted that concept, and even our own state senators went along with Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno in ignoring the legitimate rights of Western New York to benefit from the major share of the state's cut of casino profits here.

Let us be clear about this: If Buffalo doesn't get the bulk of the state's 25 percent share -- which some estimates have put as high as $50 million, or even more -- then there should be no casino here.

With the new downtown rebuilding plan, though, the value of that investment is clear and, for the first time, a casino for the city makes sense.

The plan is designed in large part to return Buffalo to the vision described by Joseph Ellicott, who laid out the city's radial street design. It would reconnect the East Side to downtown by re-engineering Genesee Street and, on the other side of Niagara Square, connect Genesee Street to the Erie Basin Marina.

That would give residents a portal to the beauty of a riverfront reborn after a two-mile stretch of I-190 is buried. Taking a cue from the recent "Rudat" report on downtown housing, the plan also calls for the location of thousands of new housing units on the waterfront and near Lafayette Square.

And, as significant as any aspect, it would create an independent state authority to administer use of the funds, ensuring that they will go toward the uses intended and not be swallowed up in the city's general fund. In addition, some of the work, especially the highway portion of the plan, might be eligible for federal aid.

This plan gives the city a leg to stand on. For years, state and federal officials have criticized the city and region for seeking funds without having developed specific plans for how to use them.

That changed with this proposal. Its details offer reassurance that money will not vanish into a black hole, but will be put to a use that will not only make the city a better place to live, but ultimately less reliant on state support. Whatever comes of this plan, its mere existence suggests a corner turned.

Casino profits will be new money, not funds redirected from other parts of the state budget. The state has no valid claim to these profits. This would be money the city could use to revitalize itself, not a handout from Albany to fill yet another hole in the city's budget. This is seed money to help Buffalo get economically healthy, not a quick fix to stop our fiscal bleeding. Moreover, $40 million or $50 million would hardly cause a ripple in the state's $79 billion-plus budget, while it would have an enormous impact on the city's future.

The involvement of the private sector, whose leadership has often been lacking in Buffalo, is another welcome development. By developing this plan, the city's business community has not only made its collective voice heard at a crucial moment, but rendered it more difficult for the state to refuse Buffalo the lion's share of its take from casino profits. As much as a master plan for development, private sector leaders have presented the community with a vision for the future.

This is a great opportunity for Buffalo, but it cannot be seen as the magic bullet answer we've mistakenly counted on in the past. This cannot represent the sum total of efforts to rebuild Buffalo's strength. The kind of grunt work that struggling cities usually have to do -- providing safe streets, excellent schools and decent housing -- needs to continue. That work still needs doing, with or without a casino.

But this plan could be an important part of the strategy Buffalo has been looking for as it attempts to end its decades-long slide into economic desperation. The governor and State Legislature ought to understand that. And, more importantly, act on it by allowing Buffalo to keep the resources that are generated here.

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