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Collins offering chord of optimism in 10-part harmony Regional revival is focus for State of the County

Chris Collins says he wants to be the quarterback for Erie County's economic revival. He seems OK with being the head cheerleader and pep-band conductor, too.

The county executive will deliver a speech today -- his second State of the County address -- in which he will talk about the bounty of riches in Buffalo and Erie County.

The colleges that serve more than 100,000 students, the large theaters and music halls, the architecture, the growing medical campus, the waterfront, the greenway -- to Collins all of it should be a source of optimism.

"I can't say enough about optimism," Collins said this week in talking about the speech he will give at 11 a.m. at 77 Goodell St., the former M. Wile & Co. Building now owned by the University at Buffalo.

"I bought 22 bankrupt companies, and when I walked in, the pessimism was like a cancer. What do you do? Change the pessimism to optimism, and you flourish. It's just amazing what human nature does. We have got a pessimistic community because it is dwelling on the negative."

Collins has been giving interviews in recent days to spread his message. He appeared live on four television stations Wednesday night to talk about a 10-point plan for regional revival that he will hand out to those attending his speech today.

The pamphlet, which his staff completed for the printers in recent days, is called "Erie County's Road to a Bright Future." It goes on for 15 pages about how to get to that brighter time: "Make the community a global gateway; focus on entrepreneurship, innovation and small business; promote agriculture; become the back-office capital of America; position our area as a medical powerhouse. . . ."

He expects to hand it out when he goes to community events. He wants the staff in development agencies, the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau, for example, to distribute copies during their travels to other parts of the country.

"We do have a lot going for us," said Patrick J. Whalen, who, among his accomplishments, founded and operated a cross-border logistics firm and is now chief operating officer of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. "People who move here from other places are more optimistic than native Buffalonians, which is puzzling to me."

But he also has criticized efforts by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise to draw businesses here. Buffalo Niagara's private-sector job growth this decade has been mediocre.

In December, the recession dealt the region its biggest monthly job loss since March 2002, when Western New York still was mired in the last recession. The December job losses were so severe that the region had fewer jobs than in any December since 1995.

"We have been chasing after the next big thing," Whalen said. "It's not going to be home runs that get us there. It's going to be base hits. We are swinging for the fences all the time, and we don't have the big hitters."

Erie County's population continues its decades-long decline. Buffalo ranks among the nation's poorest cities. Western New York counties are among the highest-taxed in the nation when comparing property taxes against home values.

With the nation in a recession and Congress preparing a stimulus package to create jobs, major infrastructure projects that Erie County can begin are trapped in a dispute with the state-appointed financial control board over how to borrow the money that will finance them.

For Collins, this is a watershed year. He sees this year's County Legislature elections as a sort of referendum on his leadership and hopes he can chip away at the Democrats' 12-3 dominance over Republicans. He's not building any mystery over whether he will seek a second term. He will run again in 2011, he says.

During a recent interview with The Buffalo News Editorial Board, Collins did not dwell on the last year and what he could cite as accomplishments. He instead focused on how he wants to play a larger role in fostering an economic revival here and to promote a vision of Erie County as "a place where people want to live and work, businesses want to invest and locate, and tourists want to visit."

"Let's start bragging about Buffalo," he said.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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