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The “Buffalo Billion,” an economic development jackpot Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo promised Western New York, easily dominated the 2012 list of top local business stories as selected by The Buffalo News business staff. ¶ To have the governor throw money and his political clout behind an all-out effort to recharge the region’s economy could signal a true shift in the state’s commitment to the area and a chance to generate lasting momentum. ¶ The challenge now falls to everyone in the region to make something of this once-and-for-all opportunity. ¶ Many of other top stories share a feeling of optimism about the region’s immediate future – from a downtown building boom, to the flourishing GM engine plant, to successful start-ups. A few are more dour, reflecting the difficulties of a stagnant economy – such as the emptying of the HSBC Tower and the loss of a corporate headquarters. But overall, the stories are about big, positive projects in the offing.

1. “Buffalo Billion”

Cuomo’s promise of $1 billion in cash, tax breaks and cheap power to revive the region’s moribund economy carries the extra weight of Cuomo’s political might. The politically ambitious governor has committed a sizable portion of his reputation to the fortunes of Western New York, a bold move none of his predecessors ever dared.

A board of local leaders, headed by developer and NFTA Chairman Howard Zemsky and University at Buffalo President Satish K. Trapathi are deciding how to best use the assets. The first investment was $50 million to move a division of Albany Molecular Research Inc. to Buffalo, in hopes it will attract other medical technology companies.

2. Downtown Buffalo enjoys a building boom

The city is in the midst of a construction bonanza not seen since the early 1980s. Projects now under construction and those about to get started portend a reinvented downtown core.

The list of projects includes the Gates Vascular Institute, the Erie Canal Harbor Front project, the just-opened Hotel @ the Lafayette, the rebuilding of the Donovan Building, the slow rebirth of the Statler Hotel, a hotel/office/ice rink complex proposed by the Buffalo Sabres for the Webster block, and the explosive growth at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, including a new Oishei Women’s & Children’s Hospital, a new University at Buffalo medical school and the new headquarters for Catholic Health Systems.

3. HSBC Tower empties

The clearing out of the HSBC Tower was not unexpected, but the announcement this month that HSBC Bank USA would move elsewhere at the end of its lease in October sent a chill through the local commercial real estate market. The Phillips Lytle law firm, the tower’s second-largest tenant, is moving into the rebuilt Donovan Building at the same time, leaving 22 of the tower’s 38 floors empty.

It would take years at the current pace of growth to absorb that much commercial space, so the tower’s owners, Seneca One Realty, are devising plans.

A combination of office space, apartments and condos is being discussed.

4. Greatbatch Inc. moves headquarters to Texas

The move of Greatbatch’s headquarters from Clarence to a Dallas suburb in Texas was a cold splash in the region’s face. The company, started in 1970 by inventor Wilson Greatbatch, is a true Western New York creation. Its main research and development center remains here, but the loss of the headquarters is symbolic and troubling.

5. Tonawanda GM plant earns new engine work

The General Motors engine plant on River Road in Tonawanda started making a next-generation, four-cylinder Ecotec engine in June, marking the third new engine in a year for the plant.

Though the plant employs far fewer that it did in its heyday, it remains near the top of GM’s most advanced plants, with a specialized and talented work force.

6. Campus Labs sells for $40 million

The emerging high-tech digital segment of the local economy got some attention when Campus Labs was sold for $40 million. The small firm was started by a team of University at Buffalo graduates who won the first Panasci Entrepreneurial Awards at UB in 2001.

The company gathers and interprets data of how students use college campuses. When founders Eric Reich and Michael Weisman sold the company to Higher One Holdings, a Connecticut company traded on the New York Stock Exchange, it raised the hopes of other young visionaries in the region.

7. Canadian shoppers arrive in droves

The welcome tidal wave of Canadian shoppers flooding the region continues to bolster the region’s sales tax collections. As the loonie has gained in strength, topping the U.S. dollar for many months, the number of Canadian shoppers seeking lower prices and greater selection has also ballooned.

Also to thank was a change in Canadian law that allowed visitors who stayed more than 24 hours to return home with $200 in merchandise duty free, up from $50. Those who stay 48 hours can take $800 back. So it has been a win for local hotels, too.

8. Canadian Consulate in Buffalo closes

The closing of the Canadian Consulate came as a shock to those who knew it was here. The 75-person office in the HSBC Tower had long helped people with visa problems and, perhaps more importantly, assisted local efforts in attracting Canadian companies to Western New York.

In a cost-cutting move, Ottawa closed the consulate and sent the work to the New York office, further diminishing this region’s international clout.

9. Immigrants put down entrepreneurial roots

Immigrants from Asia and Africa have been settling on Buffalo’s West Side for years, as evidenced by the variety of languages spoken in some city schools.

To serve this growing population, immigrant-owned businesses have been opening along the Grant Street corridor, helped by the Westminster Economic Development Initiative. The group operates a business incubator in the neighborhood.

The growth in businesses is reminiscent of the wave of Italian immigrants who built the Grant Street commercial corridor in the last century.

10. Rich Products expands headquarters

Rich Products decided to reinvest in its corporate headquarters and recommit to being in Buffalo. It is a company any region would love to have, and it was courted heavily by other cities.

But, induced with $4.9 million in grants and tax credits, the company decided to spend $18.5 million to expand and upgrade its consumer innovation center on Niagara Street.

The City of Buffalo and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority also pledged $10 million in infrastructure improvements, along Niagara Street from Niagara Square to Tonawanda Street, to spruce up an important commercial corridor.

The Rich Products expansion will bring 17 new jobs and, more importantly, fortify the existing 651 current positions.

The top business stories of 2012

1. Gov. Andrew Cuomo pledges “Buffalo Billion” to revive economy

2. Downtown Buffalo building boom

3. HSBC Tower emptying out

4. Greatbatch Inc. moves headquarters to Texas

5. Tonawanda GM plant earns new engine work

6. Campus Labs sells for $40 million

7. Canadian shoppers arrive in droves

8. Canadian Consulate in Buffalo closes

9. Immigrant entrepreneurs take root

10. Rich Products expands headquarters

email: fin@buffnews.com