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Buffalo Niagara Partnership moves forward after a great year

It’s been a good year for the Buffalo Niagara region, with progress on multiple fronts to improve the economy, boost trade and cut taxes for manufacturers, but significant work still remains to help the area grow, the head of the region’s main business advocacy group said. Buffalo Niagara Partnership CEO Dottie Gallagher-Cohen touted the group’s work over the past year to encourage smart-growth and expanded logistics, facilitate commerce across the border with Canada, lobby for changes in Albany, and push for tax relief to help industry and brownfield redevelopment. Praising both Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, she also noted the “positive changes” from the “community being aligned around a strategic plan for economic growth” and from “having a governor that pays attention to our region.”

“I’ve done about 50 speeches and presentations and have met people from all over who feel the momentum of change and growth for Buffalo Niagara,” said Gallagher-Cohen in her annual report presentation to business and community leaders in Amherst on Tuesday. “These factors are coming together to help our community turn around decades of decline.”

In particular, she cited Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative, along with a confluence of big community investments, smaller projects and “the fact that as a community we have woken up to the opportunity of Canada.” And as proof of the results, she listed private-sector job growth, higher per-capita personal income and a reversal in the decline of young people living in the area.

But it’s still just a start, she cautioned, noting that New York is still “one of the highest taxed states in the country.”

“It was a very good year, but we are nowhere near achieving the vision of making Buffalo Niagara one of the most vibrant, sustainable and competitive economic regions in the country,” she said. “The community at large has the right to be optimistic, but they should not be complacent.”

The Partnership, the regional Chamber of Commerce business organization, uses the annual report and gathering as an opportunity to bring together the region’s movers and shakers to discuss major community issues, while trying to demonstrate the value it brings to its membership as a lobbying and service organization. Gallagher-Cohen said the Partnership has a “laser focus” on growing the economy through certain “target industries” while “advocating to remove barriers to that growth.”

Among the biggest obstacles, she has noted, is the tax burden. So the group worked with the Unshackle Upstate consortium to lobby in Albany for its new five-point “economic revitalization agenda,” leading to a series of reforms.

An energy tax that has been a longtime thorn for businesses is being eliminated earlier than planned. The corporate franchise tax on manufacturers is being reduced, while upstate manufacturers will get a 20 percent property tax credit. And the estate tax threshold was raised from $1 million to $5 million in total assets.

“Our manufacturers are telling us that for the first time, they can really be competitive and that’s big because we see that as a sector that has potential for growth,” she said.

Additionally, the popular brownfields tax credit program – which has been widely used in Buffalo and other parts of upstate New York but was criticized downstate – was extended until 2017 after intensive lobbying, including by the Partnership, she said. The group hosted and promoted special events in Albany, held two news conferences, signed joint letters and launched an online campaign to advocate for the extension. To date, 34 projects in Western New York have received the credit to leverage $700 million in development.

Also on Gallagher-Cohen’s list of accomplishments:

• Redevelopment of the Planing Mill and Tishman buildings, which were identified among the downtown buildings ripe for reuse in the Buffalo Building Re-Use Project.

• The Partnership’s “Dream It, Do It” initiative for collaboration between industry and educational institutions brought 31 manufacturers together with students from 22 high schools and 10 middle schools to talk about careers in advanced manufacturing.

• Improvements at the Peace Bridge, with the start of cargo pre-inspections to enable trucks to move across the bridge more smoothly, while the federal government approved plans for enhancements to the U.S. plaza. “Anything we can do to ease the flow of people and business improves our economy,” she said.

• Formation of the CanAm Council, with 40 members, to work on recruiting more Canadian members and encouraging more trade.

• Successful lobbying in Washington on Great Lakes issues in collaboration with other regions

• Advocacy for expanded logistics and better transportation infrastructure locally through the formation and staffing of the Buffalo Niagara International Trade Gateway Organization.

• Convening multiple forums to include the private sector in “smart growth” and regional planning efforts.

“We’re at the starting line with all the other regions that are competitive and now we have to compete. But I think the community recognizes it and believes we can win,” she said. “I now have people asking me how can I help, how can I make this a better place. That’s great.”