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Annual Siena Poll shows WNY business leaders more optimistic about region’s economy

David Stinner is feeling pretty good – both about his own business and where the Buffalo Niagara economy seems to be headed.

Stinner, the president of US Itek, a Town of Tonawanda information technology consultant, said his company has seen plenty of opportunities for new business over the past few weeks as concerns about Internet security mount.

But he also likes what he’s seeing across the Buffalo Niagara region, from the HarborCenter hotel and ice rink complex and the flurry of construction work on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus to a change in attitude toward starting a business here and a renewed interest in young people to stay here and build a career.

“I’m more optimistic than ever,” Stinner said. “Buffalo has never been at the place it’s at in my lifetime, with all the cranes and all the activity.”

Stinner isn’t alone. A new poll of high-ranking business officials found that executives are more optimistic than they’ve been since the recession hit in 2007. And their optimism took a big jump last year, as the state’s Buffalo Billion investment program began to move from the idea phase to the construction phase, while the state and national economy continued to slowly gain strength.

As a result, local executives think sales and profits are on the upswing at their companies. They’re also more interested in hiring, and in making investments to buy new equipment, improve efficiency or expand overall capacity, according to the survey of 156 executives in the Buffalo Niagara region by the Siena Research Institute.

“I think it’s going in a good direction. We’ve clearly seen a lot of investment in the area, both publicly and privately,” said Dean S. Penman, the president of Seal & Design, a manufacturer of gaskets, seals and O-rings that last year launched a $3 million expansion project that will nearly double the size of its Clarence plant.

But while local executives are feeling a pretty strong buzz about the region’s overall prospects, they’re a little more subdued about the outlook for their own individual industries, said Donald Levy, the director of the Siena institute, which conducted its survey from late October through early January.

When asked about the region’s general business climate, optimists outnumber pessimists by 2-to-1, with almost half saying conditions haven’t changed. But when asked about their own industry, optimists and pessimists are equally matched, with a quarter saying conditions are improving, a quarter saying things are getting worse and half seeing no change.

“They’re more positive on the overall economy, but they see the warts in their own industry,” Levy said.

Still, the survey shows that local executives are almost three times more optimistic than they were during the depths of the recession in 2008 – and 33 percent more upbeat than they were just two years ago.

“It’s a real, meaningful turnaround,” Levy said. “But you’d like to live in a place where more than half of the people say there’s improvement.”

“It was always, what’s the next shoe to drop? What’s the next company that’s going to close?” Penman said. “Now, you see the investment in Canalside. You see the investment in (716) and the hotel [in the HarborCenter complex]. You see the people at the summer concert series that’s down there.”

Among the survey’s findings:

• Slightly more than a third of the local executives surveyed consider themselves to be optimists, well above the 20 percent who fall into the optimist camp across upstate. While optimists now outnumber pessimists in the Buffalo Niagara region by 2-to-1 (34 percent optimists vs. 17 percent pessimists), that’s a huge shift from a year ago, when pessimists still outnumbered optimists by about 9 percent.

• The increase in optimism isn’t limited to the Buffalo Niagara region. Overall confidence levels locally jumped by 17 percent in 2014, which is about the same increase size as the increase across all of upstate.

Still, confidence levels among executives across all of upstate are about 3 percent higher than they are in the Buffalo Niagara region.

“We’ve reached a point where many of these CEOs are doing better. They’re not scared anymore,” Levy said. “But they’d like to do better.”