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Accelerate Upstate looks north to Canada for New York's economy

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Buffalo Niagara Enterprise
The two-day Accelerate Upstate conference is being billed as the largest and most significant economic development conference in the recent history of western New York.

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More than 300 business, political, and community leaders from around the state are gathering in Buffalo today and tomorrow, for the Accelerate Upstate conference.

They’re looking to develop the ideas and relationships that will open a new chapter for western New York’s economy. But the focus on day one wasn’t New York.

It was Canada.

Canada is open for business

From a business standpoint, western New Yorkers ignore Canada at their peril, says Kevin Johnson, U.S. Consul General.

“The Canadian dollar is strong, meaning their purchase power is strong. Canadian unemployment is lower because of their welfare state. An unemployed Canadian still has more purchasing power than an unemployed American in many parts of the United States,” Johnson says. “I think the single biggest thing is to say that Canada is open for business. It’s a place where you can look to invest, to sell and to buy things.”

But increased security since September 11th has infamously slowed the traffic at the border.

Johnson says there’s an aggressive movement to implement reforms to how both countries handle border crossings, including having Canadian and American officials working together at security points.

“One [solution] is joint facilities. One problem we have on the American side is that the plazas are too small, so it’s hard to do inspections. It’s hard to expand the plazas because of very congested areas around them. So can we have combined facilities in some places?” Johnson says. “It’s a good moment because there’s very high trust between the two countries, and that hasn’t always been the case.”

People are willing to come

As the tenth anniversary of September 11th approaches, Canada Consul General Marta Moszczenska says both countries have learned lessons from the past decade. She says time will improve the situation – and economic relationships.

“I only see things improving over the next few years. We have two heads of nations who are totally committed to this initiative. I think they realize that the flow of goods and the flow of people across [the border] creates jobs,” Moszczenska says.

Johnson says it’s not that the border is as big of a hassle as it’s been made out to be - it’s that there’s a perception that it’s a hassle. In fact, he says, studies have shown that border crossers will brave anything if there’s something alluring enough waiting for them on the other side.

“You go to a hockey game in Buffalo and 30 percent or more of the fans are from Canada. There are some things for which people are willing to cross that friction,” Johnson says. “[If] you’ve got a good product like the Sabers or whoever they’re hosting, people are willing to come.”

New York officials focused on regional strategy

Both countries are promising reforms to the border process, Johnson says, but those have to clear bureaucratic hurdles, which tend to side with promoting security over openness. The more porous the border, he says, the better future for western New York’s economy.

But as things are now, state officials could do a better job to promoting economic partnerships between businesses from the two neighbors, Moszczenska says. The state’s top economic development official, Ken Adams has largely ignored Canada during his tenure, she says.

“Governor Cuomo and Ken Adams have a certain priority. They’re trying to make sure their objectives and deadlines are met in terms of developing regional economic development strategies. Part of those strategies I do hope, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to convince them to look at some economic activities with Canada. But right now the focus for Ken Adams and his group is New York State,” Moszczenska says.

That regional proximity is a strength, according to Johnson. He says the Canadian economy is stronger than that of the United States, and that the rest of America can’t tap into that resource as easily as western New York can.

“Many business people never think of exporting and don’t think of Canada as an important market. They’ve been used to having a very robust U.S. market. Traditionally the U.S. economy has had lower unemployment than Canada. And they’re not recognizing that, at a time when we’re having very serious economic problems in the United States, Canada is doing well.”

Johnson will have an opportunity to transmit that message Friday: at the end of the summit tomorrow, an action agenda will be delivered to elected officials in Albany and Washington.

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