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Games get big assist from First Niagara

The Empire State Games got a boost Wednesday with the announcement of a $500,000 donation from First Niagara Financial Group that organizers hope will bring in more corporate sponsors.

The bank's donation is half of a $1 million fundraising goal needed to put the Games back on sound financial footing. Organizers hope to raise the rest of the money from corporate sponsors by the July Games in Buffalo.

"We need the help of the entire business community," John R. Koelmel, president and CEO of First Niagara, said during a morning news conference in the Larkin at Exchange building.

First Niagara's $500,000 donation will ensure that the Games will be held this summer and will improve the long-term financial outlook of the Olympic-style competition, organizers said.

The 2009 Empire State Games were canceled after the state withdrew its funding for the event, which was scheduled then for the Hudson Valley region.

Koelmel and Erie Community College President Jack Quinn said they would reach out to potential corporate sponsors throughout the state in the coming weeks.

They touted the Games as an important economic boost for the Buffalo Niagara community.

Koelmel said the the Games have a "three-fold" impact: the athletes, the community and the economic return.

"The multiplier impact is significant," said Koelmel, citing economic spin-off from the recent NCAA men's basketball tournament held at HSBC Arena.

"For the athletes, this is a real showcase event," Koelmel said. "For many of them, it's the difference between a scholarship and a future college opportunity that they may or may not have."

The Games are scheduled to be held in Buffalo July 21 to 25.

Koelmel's announcement kicked off a ceremonial "torch lighting" by various officials and athletes, including Quinn, Mayor Byron Brown, State Parks Commissioner Carol Ash and boxer Joe Mesi.

Ash praised Quinn and Koelmel for leading the $1 million fundraising campaign that she said is necessary for the Empire State Games to continue this summer.

"The state of New York and the Empire Games were in real trouble," Ash said. "We were not going to be able to have enough money to put on the Games this summer."

More than 6,000 student-athletes participate in the state-wide competition.

"It's a tremendous economic driver for not only the city, but the entire region," Brown said.

e-mail: djgee@buffnews.com

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