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UB researcher cites need of leader on issues of cross-border trade

With the Canadian shoreline visible over her shoulder, a University at Buffalo researcher explained to a local business group Thursday that there are successful and promising models of cross-border cooperation that Western New York can learn from as it seeks to boost its economic ties with the more affluent parts of Ontario.

But there is nothing that can simply be copied.

Someone, said Kathryn Friedman, will have to take the lead in creating a framework for economic, political and social cooperation that fits the particular needs and will work to the benefit of New York and Ontario.

"It could be an office in a closet with a phone," said Friedman, deputy director of UB's Regional Institute. "Someone is going to have to take ownership of the issue."

Friedman told the noontime gathering organized by the World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara at Harry's Harbour Place Grille that among the many issues to be sorted out is whether the booming Greater Toronto Area can be enticed to care very much about the relatively depressed Buffalo Niagara region.

"I don't think they need us economically," Friedman said.

But one thing Western New York can offer Canada, she noted, is political access. As a whole, she said, New York State is a major economy and a center of media, financial and political power. Gaining influence in Western New York, and with the members of Congress who serve it, she said, could provide leaders of Ontario and of Canada with a bridgehead of influence into the larger U.S. economy and government.

It is also in Canada's interest, Friedman said, to help keep the overall American economy in good shape.

"If the U.S. starts to decline, Canada will, too," she said. "Our economies are tied together."

But Friedman also cited an example of an active cross-border organization that is based on efforts to leverage the economic and intellectual capital of one area with low-cost resources found in its neighbor. That would be the recently founded Cali Baja Bi-National Mega Region, a collaboration of local governments and business interests in San Diego and Imperial counties in Southern California and the Mexican state of Baja California.

Those seeking to build ties between New York and Ontario, she said, might be able to similarly match their money with our low-cost real estate.

The benefits and the difficulties of cooperation, Friedman said, are demonstrated by another organization, the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region. That's a formal alliance of the states of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana and the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Yukon Territory.

That organization was founded in 1991, Friedman said, to take on issues of mutual concern such as trade, tourism and environmental protection. It all but died in 1994 for lack of leadership and official support, she said, but turned around when political, business, academic and nonprofit interests put their official and financial support behind it.

Now, she said, it is an active, well-funded organization with much influence over national and bi-national issues such as border security and trade.

Among those listening, and hoping that something similar might happen here, was Frederick J. Mertz, vice president and general manager of S. Howes.

The Silver Lake-based company designs, manufactures and exports equipment used in processing food and chemicals. Getting its products to Canadian customers is a simple matter, Mertz said. Getting its technicians there for service calls, or getting its sales reps here for meetings, is much more difficult. No matter how much documentation the company lines up, he said, customs agents of both nations often balk at allowing such business travel.

"We have a very positive relationship with the businesses in Canada," Mertz said. "It's the government that's the problem."

e-mail: gpyle@buffnews.com

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