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A report card on Why Not Buffalo? Year-long series turns up opportunities and needs

Waterfront: So, there can be results There is progress. A new 90-acre state park opened near the Small Boat Harbor this year, and lakefront lovers can now stroll a boardwalk along the outer harbor. A new state agency will oversee development on the inner and outer harbors, a sign that officials have bought into the concept of a single agency with the clout to make things happen.

Downtown: Signs of life Good things are happening downtown. The central business district shows early signs of becoming a 24- hour-a-day neighborhood, where people live and work. Downtown housing is no longer a punch line. It's a reality. And so are the Chippewa entertainment strip and Theater District. If the housing market thrives, retail should follow.

Regionalism: Out of the spotlight Regionalism may not be dead, but it's on the back burner. That's what happens when an issue is so closely connected to one leader. County Executive Joel A. Giambra's sinking popularity feeds skepticism of a city-county merger. Many regionalism advocates think the next campaign for change should be a grass-roots effort focusing on growth and sprawl.

Albany Follies: The sequel Albany is in no rush to change the way it does business, and places like Buffalo are victims of the closed-door deal-making that puts economic burdens on cities and counties and limits each government's ability to determine its future. Finding a needed reform is as hard as picking apples off a lowhanging branch.

Erie County: Dodging the bullet Round two of the county's fiscal and leadership meltdown seemed inevitable just a month ago. Since then, county lawmakers approved two tax increases, sales and property, and enough restructuring to avoid a takeover by a state control board. The question remains: Where will Erie County be in 10 or 15 years? Look for the control board to push for a major restructuring of county government in hopes of avoiding another tax increase this decade.

Citizen Activism: Surprising optimism Consider this the shocker of the year: The spirit of grass-roots organization remains strong. Despite the psychic body blow of the county budget crisis, citizens groups are booming and moving into the mainstream. Their activities include neighborhood projects, campaigns to keep college graduates in town, even blog-like outlets touting the city's virtues. Their ranks are grooming new leaders the region desperately needs to replace its old, failed guard.

Tourism: Eating the seed corn One of the biggest bungles on the scorecard. Tourism - particularly the nexus of booming Niagara Falls and Erie County's cultural assets - is another weapon that could reverse the region's fortunes. Instead of a commitment to exploit this vast potential, Erie County siphoned off about half of the hotel bed tax money intended to attract visitors.

Jobs: The Delphi question Delphi looms as the one big question mark. What will happen to Niagara County's premier employer? And more important, how can the region bounce back from the loss of another major manufacturer? There are some positive signs. Management and labor are trying to work more cooperatively, and economic development experts are focusing more on job retention and expansion and the need for new business sites.

Education: A powerhouse, or not School Superintendent James A. Williams stakes his reputation on "measurable, immediate" improvement in the ills that tarnished a once-acclaimed public school system. The next six months will determine whether Williams is the leader public education desperately needs or just another blustering demagogue. Higher education is another snapshot in the leadership principle. Except for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the vast potential of the University at Buffalo and local colleges remains untapped.

TurfWars: The need for a bigger pie The region's players must recognize the selfdefeating implications of competing against each other for too few pieces of a pie, rather than cooperating to broaden the resources available to all parties. For Western New York, it's still a pervasive problem without noticeable change.

Hydropower: Resounding victory This could be the most important victory this year. It's crucial because cash and cheap power are at stake, and that translates into jobs, growth and prosperity. With an agreement in place for Buffalo and Erie County to receive $279 million from the Niagara Power Project's relicensing, there is now money to develop the Buffalo waterfront.

The Once and Future Bridge: Style points Disciples of the signature bridge movement understand every reviving city needs a dramatic structure to show the world its prowess and style. So getting over the dysfunction of the Peace Bridge design process is a worthy fight. The basic design has imagination and possibility. Star architects are waiting in the wings. Funding still could be an issue, but for those frustrated over the wheelspinning, this passes for good news.

Transportation: Broken promises Since 1991, nearly $130 million for congressionally approved road projects for Western New York has been delayed or diverted to other projects. Projects ranging from the Peace Bridge expansion to a new parkway for Buffalo's outer harbor remain on hold. State officials promise work on both will begin soon, but local officials remain skeptical. The answer: Rally state legislators to make sure the money is spent where Congress intended.

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