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Lewis D. "Luke" Rich, the state's top economic developer in Western New York, is taking an early retirement incentive to form his own consulting firm.

Rich has been vice president and regional director for Empire State Development Corp. since 1995. Empire State Development works with the dozens of local economic development offices across Western New York to help retain and attract companies here.

The state agency plays a lead role, because it offers the cash grants for capital spending and worker training that often help win large projects.

Although the region's overall job base has declined in the last seven years, the state has become more aggressive in the highly competitive economic development arena and has helped land significant business investments.

Empire State Development helped attract the $500 million new engine line at the GM plant in Tonawanda, new presses and hundreds of new jobs at the Quebecor World plant in Depew, and 250 new jobs to the Cummins Inc. heavy-duty engine assembly plant in Jamestown.

The trade publication Site Selection recently ranked the GM Tonawanda project as one of the nation's top economic development deals this year.

"Luke Rich has always been helpful to us. Luke always puts his best foot forward for business in Western New York. And, he's just a good guy too," said Paul Leone, director of business development at the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.

Job gains from local projects have been offset by losses at numerous plants, particularly in Niagara County, which has seen Nabisco, Saint-Gobain Abrasives and Carbide Graphite close plants in the last two years.

Rich's last official day will be December 31. Empire State Development Corp. Chairman Charles Gargano has begun looking for a new Western New York director.

"(Rich's) hard work and professionalism have attracted companies such as General Motors and Cummins Engine in Jamestown, helping revive the region's storied transportation industry. He has been a tremendous asset as we work to overcome new challenges," Gargano said.

Rich, 57, will form a consulting firm called Rich Results. He may end up being the region's chief lobbyist on border policy issues in Washington and Ottawa.

Rich said his firm will represent local businesses and organizations in the United States and Canadian capital cities.

"A good portion of what I am going to be focusing on is the international cross-border function. A good deal of the economy here and in southern Ontario revolves around goods and services flowing smoothly across the border," Rich said.

The Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the region's largest business group, has made maintaining a secure and free-flowing border a top lobbying priority since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

When asked if his new firm would be retained by the partnership, Rich deferred questions to the prospective client.

"We're talking, that's all I can say right now," Buffalo Niagara Partnership President Andrew J. Rudnick said.

Rich was vice president of government relations at the partnership before the Pataki administration recruited him to head the state's economic development office in Western New York.

Rich, who worked for several state legislators earlier in his career, will get to add three years to his 23 years of state service through the early retirement offer.

"I have really enjoyed serving the citizens of New York State. It's not that I don't enjoy what I'm doing, because I like it a lot. I think there is no higher calling than to serve your fellow citizens."


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