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The U.S. Commerce Department is launching a Web-based service that connects exporters with foreign buyers, adding to a number of publicly supported trade assistance programs available in Western New York.

For an annual fee of $300, allows U.S. exporters to show their catalogs to 14,000 overseas merchants, sales agents and distributors, said Gale N. Seereiter, trade assistant at the Commerce Department's Export Assistance Center in Buffalo.

"It's free for international companies -- they just have to be aware of it," Seereiter said.

The federal service comes one year after Erie County granted $180,000 to a local business group to join a global trade network. The World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara, an affiliate of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, links local member companies with trade opportunities abroad. Member companies pay annual fees of $495.

The Commerce Department's service doesn't duplicate the efforts of the local group, said Robert L. Stevenson, board president of World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara.

"It's a little different," he said. WhileBuyUSA is based on government contacts, "the WTC works business-to-business," he said. Overseas companies participating are qualified by the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service, a Commerce Department arm that works through U.S. embassies.

In addition to providing trade links to business in 300 sister chapters worldwide, the WTC Buffalo Niagara hosts education programs and provides referrals to trade experts. It organized a trade trip to Brazil last week that six member companies attended.

However, the WTC and other area international groups are being asked by Erie County to work together more closely and to show concrete results.

"They (WTC) need to move from having an orientation toward educational programs to proactive development -- bringing companies outside the U.S. to do business in Western New York," said Lawrence K. Rubin, county commissioner of planning and development.

It also needs to show results in a business plan that includes concrete objectives such as gains in membership and local exports.

"Membership . . . is a pretty good sign of customer satisfaction," he said.

The push for local trade agencies to work together parallels the county's effort to get local development agencies to coordinate their efforts, Rubin said.

In addition to the WTC and the U.S. Commerce Deparment, the county Industrial Development Agency and the state's Empire State Development Corp. also support exports.

Meanwhile, Atlantic Corridor USA promotes business ties with Europe, while Buffalo Niagara WorldConnect arranges visits by international officials and business people.

The Commerce Department's service, a joint venture with IBM Corp., will grow in the future to include online transaction processing and databases of foreign tax and duty information, according to the Commerce Department.


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