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Empire Games outlook is upbeat Director says events return to WNY next July

Empire State Games director Fred Smith was in Buffalo on Wednesday, making plans to be here July 21-25, 2010.

That's when the 32nd edition of the Games is scheduled to be held at sites across Western New York.

"Every indication that I have gotten from our agency and Commissioner Carol Ash in Parks is that we will have Games next year," said Smith, referring to the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which oversees the Games. "I have no reason to doubt it. I have no reason to do anything but move full steam ahead."

The 2009 Games were canceled after the state withdrew its funding for the multi-sport, Olympic-style event, which was scheduled to be hosted by the Hudson Valley region, including Poughkeepsie.

A combination of a state appropriation, statewide and local sponsorships and small fees for participants will provide the funding necessary to hold the Games, Smith said.

"If this goes south, I'll be as surprised as anybody -- but it's not going to happen," said Smith, who has been the director of the Games for 14 years. "I have every reason to believe that the Games will not only go on, but be very successful."

Smith could not go as far as to guarantee that there would be state funding for the Games, but he said that this wasn't any different from any previous year the Games were held. He said the appropriation was "usually $1.7 million."

"A state employee can't guarantee anything, because we don't control the budget," Smith said, "and we have to wait for the Legislature to pass that budget. Year to year, we have always had the same problem. The budget isn't passed until April, so when we're planning on Games prior to April, we're just assuming that we will have funds to do it. So that's the assumption that I'm making."

Smith said that other funding contingencies have been made. There are plans for a $10 registration fee for scholastic division (high school age) and open division (college age and older) athletes, while masters fees would rise "$10 or $15," Smith said. The failure in 2009 was largely because of the state's plans to charge all athletes a participation fee of $285 in what would have been a scholastic-only event.

"2009 is something that none of us want to relive -- not only the Games bureau and employees, but the agency and, I think, the state itself," Smith said. "I think everybody learned that this is something that's valuable in the community, it's valuable to participants, and we'll do whatever we can to make it work. I'm very confident that we'll have Games."

Athletes in the open division will also have to pay a planned $25 fee to reserve their housing for the Games; athletes would also have the option of arranging their own housing. All fees would be payable when athletes register for the Games online at the Games' Web site.

Smith also said that the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has expanded its own program of soliciting private sponsorships, including the addition of a fundraising position.

"The development person will certainly give us help," Smith said. "That, coupled with what the local organizing committee is doing [in sponsorships], coupled with fees, coupled with a state commitment, I'm very confident we'll have the Games. I would love to get [the $1.7 million appropriation]. But if we get a little less -- or a little more -- we'll certainly deal with that."

According to Smith, the format of the Games will not change; the same sports and divisions will be used as in 2008, save for sailing being moved from open to masters. That would put the number of open and scholastic sports at 25.

Smith was at Buffalo's Chef's Restaurant to attend a meeting of the local organizing committee headed by Ralph Galanti. The meeting was attended by more than 30 people and included reports from separate subcommittees for budgeting, marketing, volunteers, publicity and venues. Among the venues are the University at Buffalo and Erie Community College.

The Empire Games are projected to add $10 million to $12 million into the local economy.

"I can't blame anyone for looking at the Games and having their doubts," Smith said. "But from my perspective, from where I sit, and it's not just as the state bureaucrat who is running the program -- but somebody who has to work with all of these people -- I've been working with Ralph for over a year. Ralph has put together a great committee.

"There are potential sponsors we're trying to get to gear this thing up -- I would not even think about selling them a bill of goods unless I was very sure. Because I remember the disappointment on the faces of the people in Hudson Valley. I don't want to go through that again."

Smith added: "I'm sure the agency's commitment and the state's commitment is to move ahead and make it work. I see no reason to doubt the fact that the Games will be here in July and we'll be over this terrible speed bump of 2009 and move on."

Smith also said the Games are close to hiring a new director for the Western Region. The Town of Tonawanda's Lou Reuter, who died Aug. 17, held the post for 11 years.

e-mail: kmcshea@buffnews.com

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