After decades of watching jobs vanish – sometimes in dribs and drabs, sometimes in a torrent of misfortune – it isn't easy to sit quietly because the architects of our latest economic cure-all say it will take years for the medicine they've come up with to work.
We want results, and we want them now. After all, this is a crisis that's affecting our very lives. Our kids are moving away. Our paychecks aren't growing; they're just keeping pace with inflation. And unlike cool cities, like Portland, Ore., that have become magnets for those same young people who are fleeing Western New York, nobody thinks of Buffalo as a hip, up-and-coming place where all kinds of really neat things are happening.
But the people charged with parceling out the Buffalo Billion that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promised us to help get the Buffalo Niagara region back on its feet, thankfully, aren't thinking about quick fixes. They've spent the last year looking for things that Western New York can do better – and cheaper – than other places, and trying to figure out ways to take advantage of those strengths.
“If we can make strategic choices, fact-based decisions, we can make progress. But I caution people that we're not going to look like Portland, Ore., in 2013 or 2014,” said developer Howard Zemsky, who is co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council.
Their vision will take years to pan out, and if it does, the Buffalo Niagara region will be a hotbed of life sciences research – a place where talented scientists want to be, simply because there are lots of talented scientists already here doing really neat, cutting-edge work.
For the less scientifically inclined, it will be a place where regular people, with the proper skills acquired from a souped-up job training system, can get jobs at sophisticated factories, making products that are too complex to be made by just anyone, and certainly not by a $2-a-day laborer in the Third World.
“We have people who are looking for jobs and jobs that are looking for people, and the two don't always match up,” Zemsky said.
We might even come up with more ways to entertain our tourists, who now pop in for a few hours to gawk at Niagara Falls, make a quick bet in the casino and shake their heads at how a place blessed with such a spectacular natural attraction that attracts visitors by the millions can offer so little else.
“We've had many decades of population decline and job loss,” Zemsky said. “Unless we are successful in implementing these strategies, we will have continued decline.”
Maybe that's why we've been intrigued by all these silver bullet projects over the past three decades, from the Ghermezian Brothers' mega-mall project in Niagara Falls, to the Adelphia office tower downtown, to Eddy Cogan's tantalizing vision to bring a new vibrancy to downtown Niagara Falls.
But the one thing those projects – and a handful of others – all have in common is that they all ended up shooting way wide of the target.
Cogan's proposal went beyond being a disappointment because it turned into a millstone around the region's neck. That's because we drank the Kool-Aid and handed over a huge parcel of prime Niagara Falls property to developers (it's now in the hands of Manhattan developer Howard Millstein) who haven't done a thing for more than a decade. (Keep that in mind the next time the starry-eyed backers of the retractable-roof waterfront stadium and convention center project say they need control of a prime parcel of lakeside property.)
The council's long-term approach began in the fall of 2011, when the state awarded more than $100 million in funding to 96 different projects that met the agency's newly developed vision.
The vast majority of those projects (85 percent) remain on track, but more than a year later, many of them are just starting to ramp up. A total of nine projects, with a combined value of about $4 million, have fallen through, many involving job training grants that later were declined by recipients.
“When they applied for the funds, I don't think they realized the requirements that were associated with the funds,” said Christina Orsi, Empire State Development's regional director in Buffalo. The money from those scrapped projects will be reallocated to other projects that are funneled through the council.
Another project, a $2 million venture for an automotive maintenance training facility on Buffalo's East Side, is in limbo while one of its key partners, Erie Community College, rethinks its overall approach to job training, Orsi said.
And a tiny project, to put up new signs along the Niagara Wine Trail, is being held up in the state Legislature. The project originally involved only signs in Niagara County, but its backers want to expand the initiative into Orleans and Monroe counties. Only they can't because that would require approval from the state Legislature, and the Assembly has balked.
Yet other projects that were given high priority by the council are moving forward, albeit slowly. The Rosewell Park Cancer Institute Genome Consortium hired its first 28 employees last year and finished setting up the facility.
Other projects, from the Jacobs Institute Center for Innovation in Medicine to the Hauuptman Woodward Crystallization Laboratory, are on pace to purchase lab equipment during the first half of this year. But the Hauptman Woodward lab won't be completed until the end of next year, while another high-tech project, a high temperature materials lab at Alfred University, won't be ready until the end of 2015.
Down the road, the council plans to back what Zemsky bills as “the world's biggest start-up competition,” which would offer up to $500,000 in financing to as many as 10 winners in a contest for the best business ideas in healthcare, manufacturing, technology, social entrepreneurship and for minority and women-owned businesses.
“We don't have enough business startups,” Zemsky said. “If we don't have a lot of startup companies, that speaks poorly to our future prospects.”
That's why the $5 million competition isn't enough to make the Buffalo Niagara region a magnet for entrepreneurs. Supplement that with a regional investment fund of $50 million or so to help promising firms get started here, or get established, and now you've got something.