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Business groups push Great Lakes aid policies

Business groups from across the Great Lakes region -- including the Buffalo Niagara Partnership -- have banded together to press Congress for economic policies aimed at transforming the region.

Representatives from 31 chambers of commerce from 12 states descended on Capitol Hill this week to push a five-point agenda:

* Improving transportation infrastructure to boost the region -- especially in the renewal of federal highway legislation later this year.

* Creating "a 21st century northern border" with Canada that balances security concerns with the free flow of commerce -- and that's considerably more open than it was under President George W. Bush.

* A massive program to restore the Great Lakes, which would also create jobs throughout the region.

* Developing an innovation strategy that aims to boost research, development and venture capital investment in the Great Lakes states.

* Establishing a federal immigration policy that encourages skilled workers from overseas to move to the region.

The Capitol Hill visits cap an effort that began a year ago "to try and approach the federal government collectively and with a strategic perspective for dollars and policy to revitalize what we believe is a multi-regional economic super-region: the Great Lakes," said Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

Rudnick noted that the effort pre-dated the economic downturn. And Barbara McNees, president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, said the chambers have a vision that goes far beyond the $789 billion stimulus package that Congress is expected to finalize shortly.

"This is all about long-term investment in the Great Lakes region," McNees said.

The chamber leaders said they think they are particularly well-position to see the federal government adopt a more Great Lakes friendly stance than it has in the past.

After all, President Obama hails from Illinois, in the heart of the Great Lakes region. And before joining Obama as his chief of staff, then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel led a long-stalled congressional effort for a multibillion-dollar Great Lakes cleanup.

"All of a sudden, we're dealing from strength," Rudnick said.

Knowing that the Obama administration is three weeks old and wrapped up in finalizing the stimulus package, the chamber officials said they concentrated this week's visit on Capitol Hill. They met with upwards of 60 federal lawmakers as well as Canadian Ambassador Michael Wilson.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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