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'New era' for WNY, upstate czar vows

Niagara and Western New York are clearly back on the state's radar screen, the new upstate chairman of Empire State Development told an audience of business leaders and politicians Thursday.

"There was such a focus over the years on downstate," Daniel Gundersen said before a sold-out crowd of 220 people in the Conference Center Niagara Falls. "We went decades without an upstate focus, but my appointment was a signal that the governor is very committed to this area."

In his first public appearance in Niagara County, Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer's point man for the redevelopment of Western New York promised a "new era for the Niagara region."

Spitzer has established an upstate headquarters in downtown Buffalo for New York City-based Empire State Development Corp.

State senators and other representatives, local mayors and legislators attended the breakfast meeting, which was coordinated by Niagara USA Chamber in the conference center's new Cataract Room.

"I'm a big advocate of this area and I'm stunned you haven't been able to capitalize on all that you have going for you here," Gundersen said.

Gundersen, who recently moved from Saratoga Springs and has leased a house in Buffalo's Elmwood Village, hit the high points of a revitalization blueprint for Niagara County.

The key, he said, is to capitalize on the area's assets:

*Tourism

*The border relationship with Canada

*Niagara Falls International Airport

*Historic and cultural sites

*Abundant power

Regarding the U.S.-Canada border, Gundersen said Empire State Development has opened an office in Toronto and plans to work closely with the Canadian government and southern Ontario agencies to improve cross-border access.

On the issue of electricity, Gundersen said, "I'm a champion for making sure you have an abundance of power at the lowest cost."

Unlike New York City, which focuses on big projects, the Niagara region is about small business, he said.

"We need to start from the ground up," Gundersen said. "Where did we put the first dollar? All you have to do is look out the window."

Gundersen was referring to the multimillion-dollar redevelopment of Old Falls Street, on which the new conference center was built. Once a booming and crowded thoroughfare near the American Falls that housed theaters, nightclubs and shops, Falls Street fell on hard times in the 1970s, and, until recently, languished in disrepair.

"We decided we'd put millions of dollars to redevelop this mall," Gundersen said. "The goal is to extend that artery through the city. This is just step one, but it has already begun."

The pedestrian mall will ultimately connect the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel and neighboring attractions to Niagara Falls State Park and the falls.

Gundersen confirmed that USA Niagara Development, a subsidiary of Empire State Development, would stay in Niagara Falls. In January, the state's development corporation will move into new offices in the historic, art deco Niagara Office Building, which is currently being renovated by Buffalo developer Carl A. Paladino.

Following his broad presentation, Gundersen fielded questions from the audience on a wide range of issues, including one on the overlooked topic of agriculture.

"Agriculture," Gundersen replied. "It's the No. 1 industry upstate. Absolutely, positively, we're committed to that."

The new upstate development czar summed up his presentation by saying, "Our goal is to make the Niagara region stronger than it has ever been."

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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