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WNY business community's winners and losers of 2011

It's not much of a recovery, but it could be a lot worse.

That's about the best way to sum up 2011 in the Buffalo Niagara region. The local job market showed some vigor this summer, only to stagnate again in the fall. There were some signs that business is picking up a bit, but there isn't a lot of confidence the upswing will last.

So it's still not so much a recovery, as it is treading water. And while we hope 2012 will bring a turn for the better, here's a look at some of the Buffalo Niagara business community's winners and losers from 2011.

>The winners

*Marc Croce -- His project to breathe new life into the Statler Towers has too far to go to be considered a true winner, but the Buffalo developer deserves to be called one just for stepping up to the plate and trying to save the downtown landmark.

Croce, who's getting $5.3 million in public funds to help fund the early efforts to stabilize and restore the Statler, plans to start small, turning three floors of the Statler into a combination of banquet space, restaurants, retail and a nightclub.

The Statler is a sentimental favorite for Western New Yorkers. Whether his plan turns out to be a winner for Croce will depend on whether he can turn sentimentality into dollars.

*Howard Zemsky -- The soft-spoken Buffalo developer, whose Larkin at Exchange building is a crown jewel of the city's redevelopment efforts, scored another triumph as co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Development Council with University at Buffalo President Satish Tripathi.

The council was one of four big winners in a statewide competition that will bring more than $100 million in aid to the region. The council, with amazingly little public dissent for such a fractious and parochial region, also came up with a strategic plan for an area that for too long has lacked a long-term vision.

Now the challenge will be turning those dollars and that vision into good-paying jobs.

*First Niagara Bank -- They like us. They really do. After HSBC Bank decided its upstate New York branches weren't profitable enough for their high-flying tastes, First Niagara stepped in and ponied up $1 billion to snap up more than a half million customers in its hometown market and beyond.

The deal makes First Niagara a big player across upstate. Even better, HSBC's soon-to-be-former customers can rest assured that, once First Niagara takes over sometime in midyear, they'll be wanted again.

Now all First Niagara has to do is get its slumping stock headed higher before its own shareholders get restless.

*Auto workers -- There aren't nearly as many of them as there used to be, but the local General Motors and Ford Motor Co. plants both got a big shot in the arm by landing new work that should help reverse the long decline in the region's autoworker ranks.

As part of a new nationwide labor deal, Ford agreed to invest $136 million in the Woodlawn Stamping Plant, recall 120 workers and add 400 new jobs there. The expansion would double the Woodlawn plant's work force, which had dwindled to just 540 active hourly workers last fall.

GM's Town of Tonawanda engine plant is adding two new engine lines, which will start production next year and in 2013 respectively. Those new lines could push its 800-person work force past the 1,000 mark once they're in full production.

>The losers

*Steven J. Baum law firm -- Not only did the Amherst law firm collapse because of its shaky practices and bad taste, but its demise also cost the jobs of nearly 600 local workers at the firm that handled much of its legal paperwork.

The law firm already was in hot water for "robo-signing" documents for clients in foreclosure proceedings, but its coup de grace was some shockingly bad taste by some of the firm's workers whose costumes mocked foreclosure victims and attorneys at a 2010 Halloween party.

Mocking their foreclosure clients brought a quick laugh, but the joke really was on Baum, which got cut off from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac after photos of the infamous party appeared in the New York Times. Three days before Thanksgiving, the law firm said it would close. A week later, workers at Pillar Processing got their layoff notices.

No one's laughing now.

*Offshore wind -- Building a massive wind farm off the shores of Lake Erie or Lake Ontario never made economic sense. Wind power is too expensive, especially when it's a mile or two offshore. But it's sexy, and former New York Power Authority Chairman Richard Kessel loved to make a splash.

But when Kessel left NYPA last summer, the offshore wind project lost its patron saint, and rational thinking finally prevailed. NYPA's new bosses pulled the plug on an offshore wind farm that would have required $1.2 billion to $2 billion in subsidies over 20 years.

We need more renewable energy, but not at any price.

*Local IDAs -- Nowadays, it doesn't take much to get a tax break from local industrial development agencies. Moving a wine store to the town next door? Come on down! Opening a restaurant? Have we got a deal for you! A new dollar store? Those projects sure look like a million bucks!

IDAs need to do deals to bring in the fees they depend on to pay their bills. The commercial and industrial projects that traditionally are IDA mainstays dried up with the recession, so the focus has been on projects to reuse long-vacant buildings, no matter what the use.

Nobody likes eyesores, but IDAs shouldn't be handing out tax breaks like candy, either. When retailers, restaurants and doctors come knocking, it's time for the IDAs to be less generous in handing out their tax break goodies.

*Norse Energy -- S. Dennis Holbrook, Norse's top local executive, had grand hopes that the Norwegian natural gas driller would bring dozens -- if not hundreds -- of good jobs to Western New York once the state opened the door to drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

But after three years of dallying by the state, Norse is on the verge of running out of money. It has put its New York land holdings up for sale to try to stay afloat. Its Hamburg office, which Holbrook hoped to turn into a magnet for new jobs, instead is down to a bare-bones staff.

Another local dream on the brink of being shattered.