The most effective economic development strategies, those that are most likely to lead to population retention or even growth, are those that are targeted strategically and specifically at strengthening the fabric of the daily life of the people who are living here now. We need to be wary of plans and programs that, in the absence of demonstrated demand, focus on creating supply and increasing capacity.
Economic development strategies therefore must be rooted in existing community assets -- on who we are and on what we have -- rather than an imagined notion of who and what we would like to be. By thus strengthening and reinforcing our existing assets we will, gradually but lastingly, increase demand for all that this community has to offer. Economic development strategies organized around these principles will generate economic development that we will be able to sustain. With that in mind I would like to identify a series of strategies, which, by building on what we have now will get us to where we want to be later.
1.) Strengthen our already strong commitment to vocational and technical education. Recognizing the far higher graduation rates among students in vocational and technical programs, a coordinated educational program of learning institutions already working in this area -- Erie I BOCES, regionwide public schools and community colleges -- needs to be created that will develop and then expand improved curricula and innovative teaching techniques in market-oriented training that is related to the larger economic development plan. By effecting a better integration of academic and vocational studies, we need to create educational programs that would prepare students for lasting and rewarding employment, further education and lifelong learning.
2.) The streets and sidewalks of the city, the places where almost 300,000 people live, walk and play, are in desperate need of repair and improvement. Residents care deeply about their neighborhoods; they work tirelessly to improve them. But if we are to keep those people here and attract new residents to our old neighborhoods, we need a citywide program of street and sidewalk improvement that will tie the people of Buffalo still more to the places where they live.
3.) Create a blueprint and then a mechanism for enforcing it, for regional growth. This would include not only a regional master plan rooted in "smart growth," but a one-stop-shop, super industrial development agency, one that would eliminate forever the destabilizing and chaotic approach currently in effect.
4.) Small businesses (50 employees and fewer) must be brought into the discussion and a genuine effort made to assess and understand their needs. By so doing, we will learn about their concerns and will be in a better position to create a blueprint for the future development of small business. Such an effort will send a very strong message to current business owners, as well as to those considering becoming business owners, that this is a community that will respond to, nurture and strengthen the needs of this most significant component of our community.
5.) No economic development plan for this area can be created without considerable attention being paid to the arts. There is perhaps no more dynamic engine of economic growth than the arts, and this growing sector must be integral to any plans for the future. This could take several forms, not necessarily rooted in subsidizing existing arts organizations. An effective model of public support for an arts program that had significant impact on the standing of this community was the state-funded "Festival of the Arts Today" held in Buffalo in 1965 and 1968. These extraordinary events, which captured the attention of the international press, offer a fascinating road map for those of us who recognize the value of these kinds of events as economic development tools.
6.) Recognize the importance of heritage, history and architecture as economic development opportunities. Work closely with the Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau (Visit Buffalo Niagara), which has recognized the value of heritage tourism and made it a focal point of its efforts to attract visitors to this area. Then, move beyond heritage as a lure for outsiders and recognize its powerfully positive effect on the way people who live here feel about their hometown. We must seize on and implement further planning and development strategies that strengthen and reinforce the importance of history, heritage, preservation and architecture in our daily lives.
7.) It has been estimated that there are 70,000 college students in the Buffalo region. While there are many links between these institutions and the surrounding area, a specific task force needs to be created to strengthen the connections between the students and staff of these institutions and the surrounding urban context. We must give real meaning and substance to the "branding" of Buffalo as "a college town" -- a community that is very eager to create and sustain in Buffalo the kind of deep ties that exist between institutions of higher learning in places like Boston and Pittsburgh.
8.) Over the past 30 years, Buffalo has suffered a serious "brain drain" as thousands of our area's best-educated young people have left. Many, particularly the younger ones who have left in the last 10 years, would return in a heartbeat if the opportunities were here. With this in mind, we need to create a databank of all of those people: who they are, where they live, what they do and what their interests are. Then, using the information generated from this, we would create an office whose primary function would be to create lines of communication and networks between these people and opportunities. This has already been done by volunteer groups like the Buffalo Expat network, a group that knows how but needs help, to reach out in more strategic ways to one of our area's potentially most effective, but untapped, natural resources.
9.) Recognize the importance of recent immigrants and refugees to the economic health and vitality of our area and support a well-funded public/private effort to do what we can to encourage more to come and those already here to stay. While private agencies have done a laudable job in integrating the growing numbers of newcomers to our area, that effort, if it will lead here to the kinds of economic development that newcomers have had in other cities throughout the nation, will require a more serious and sustained initiative.
10.) Build on the model of the Olmsted Conservancy and the PUSH organization, both private and publicly funded citizen-based organizations that have had an incalculable impact on the quality of daily life in our community. Efforts should be made, in communities throughout the city, to organize and to fund the start-up of community-based organizations that, with proper funding and staffing, would quickly make a tangible impact on the health and well-being of neighborhoods throughout the city.
11.) Recognize the importance of place-making as an economic development strategy. These efforts should focus on the improvement of public spaces, similar to those efforts being made at Canalside. Through a combination of programmatic and structural strategies -- for example, reconnecting the east-west streets of the West Side to the Niagara River -- these kinds of place-making activities, by improving the quality of daily life, will directly and immediately lead to economic development.
Mark Goldman, a local historian and entrepreneur, spearheaded the revival of Chippewa Street in the early 1990s.