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50,000-JOB GOAL WAS DISTRACTION TO BNE'S MISSION

It took two years, but reality finally set in at Buffalo Niagara Enterprise: The goal of bringing an additional 50,000 jobs to the region is just too high.

So, the BNE's board dropped the 50,000 net new jobs target as the primary way to measure the success of the $27 million marketing and business development initiative.

"Make no mistake," says Randall L. Clark, the BNE's new chairman. "The centerpiece of the BNE is economic revitalization and job creation."

But 50,000 additional jobs in five years was going to be a tough goal to reach, even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks threw an already-sputtering national economy on a path that many economists now believe is headed straight for a recession.

So it was an opportune time for the BNE to get out from under a highly publicized goal that had turned into an albatross around the group's neck.

Not that the goal was all that outrageous. After all, 50,000 new jobs is only about a 9 percent increase in the region's jobs base over a five-year period. To get there, all the region needed to do was average about 1.75 percent a year in its job growth, which is less than the 2.2 percent job growth rate that the nation has enjoyed over the last 10 years.

But unfortunately, Buffalo isn't like the rest of the country. We have our own unique set of problems -- high taxes, expensive electric rates, heavy-handed regulations, high union membership and a scattershot economic development approach -- that caused most of the growth since 1990 to pass us by.

So while 2 percent job growth might seem like a modest goal for most of the rest of the country, by Buffalo standards, it's a tall order. Our job growth has averaged a measly 0.6 percent a year since 1958, according to state Labor Department statistics.

Want more proof? Over the last 43 years, there have been only seven five-year periods where the region has added more than 50,000 jobs, four during the 1960s and three during the latter half of the 1980s, before the local banking boom went bust. During the 1990s expansion -- the longest growth spurt in the nation's history -- the best the Buffalo Niagara region could muster over any five-year period was 19,700 additional jobs between 1994 and 1999.

And now, with the region already mired in a recession that has cost it 1,800 jobs over the last year, there was no way the BNE would come close to reaching its lofty goal. So the group is lowering its sites.

The BNE now will measure its success based on a half dozen different benchmarks, including survey results, project activity, business investment, job growth, per capita income growth and population growth.

Just as important, the BNE already has played an important role in bringing some coordination to the region's economic development agencies, which in the past have had the bad habit of competing against each other.

The first step took place this spring, when the BNE's leadership was linked with the region's two other powerful development agencies, the Erie County and Amherst industrial development agencies. Thomas A. Kucharski, the BNE president, and James J. Allen, the Amherst IDA executive director, now are working together to oversee the Erie County IDA. And all six of the county's IDAs are considering using the same eligibility requirements for property tax abatements.

The region has made progress on some other counts, too. The county has cut property taxes by 31 percent in two years. The City of Buffalo has made some progress in improving its much-maligned construction permit process.

To be sure, there's still a long way to go before the region is truly competitive on a national basis. But there are signs of improvement. For a marketing group like the BNE, that's important.

No matter how big your marketing budget, it's hard to sell a flawed product. But if you take the hard steps to fix what you're selling, you might actually find people willing to take a look.

e-mail: drobinson@buffnews.com