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A new state board will begin work immediately on planning and obtaining financing for a heritage tourism marketing effort centered on the Erie Canal.

The Western Erie Canal Heritage Corridor Planning Commission, which held its first official meeting Thursday in the Niagara Reservation State Park Visitor Center here, hopes to complete its management plan within two years, if not sooner.

The corridor covers Niagara, Erie, Orleans, Monroe and Wayne counties. It was created by a state law passed in 1999.

That law was pushed by State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda. Grassia said, "I think it's fair to say the commission would not be here today if it weren't for the senator."

William Condo of the Landmarks Society of Western New York, staff coordinator for the 18-member volunteer commission, said the legal deadline for completing the plan is July 2003. But the commission's chairman, Erie County Forester Brian Grassia, said, "We're going to work very hard to get the management plan done sooner."

Bernadette Castro, the commissioner of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, attended the meeting. She said the commission will be able to apply for state grants and seek private-sector funding to finance its plans.

She said municipalities and counties in the canal area are not required to participate financially.

However, each of the five counties will be asked to set up a five-member advisory committee to provide a structure for funneling public input to the commission.

Grassia said the "guiding principle" of the planning effort will be "to respect and protect the unique heritage of each canal community."

Michael Heftka, a Grand Island Town Board member who was selected as commission vice chairman, said the commission will try to turn the plentiful rhetoric about regionalism into practice. He said the corridor's purpose is "finding a 21st century use for a 19th century marvel."

Dennis Gleason, regional manager of Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., was chosen as commissioner treasurer, and Joyce Lobene, a Spencerport real estate agent, was named secretary.

Castro said: "I'm extremely impressed. I love the inclusive effort. . . . I wish I could tell you all out 16 heritage areas had a connecting thread like this one word, 'canal.' "

She said the state has a special grant program just for heritage corridors. "Usually we try to hit on Main Streets or revitalization," she said.

A federal law passed in December created an overlapping Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Commission to create a plan similar to the one the state commission is supposed to make. Marcia Kees, a subordinate of Castro's, said the state will try to avoid conflicts but was uncertain how the two levels of government would interact.

There is a third panel, a Canal Recreationway Commission set up by the New York State Canal Corp.

Condo said the state corridor commission has already set up a structure of four subcommittees and assorted task forces. He said most of the decisions on how the panel will work were made at a Nov. 11 retreat at Brockport State College.

Before the full commission holds its next meeting in April, the task forces are expected to have determined what help they will need from consultants, sent out requests for proposals and hired the consultants.

Condo said a daylong commissioners bus tour of the canal from Buffalo to the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge is also expected in April.

Once the management plan is done, the state Heritage Area Advisory Council and Castro will review it and either approve it or call for changes.

Kees said the plan will have specific goals. "It's not a plan that will sit on the shelf," she said.

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