There’s no doubt: A $1 billion economic development program can go a long way toward reviving a downtrodden region.
What’s harder to measure is the psychological boost that a program, like Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative, can have on a region’s psyche, especially when it has been battered and beaten by a half century of bad economic news.
“There is no statistic that measures hope,” said Howard Zemsky, the co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council.
But there’s no doubt the impact has been substantial.
“I think we all feel really energized,” said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, the president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, after the state agreed last week to buy 96 acres from the City of Buffalo that will more than double the size of the planned RiverBend clean energy and technology hub in South Buffalo.
“It’s a continuing part of the Buffalo story,” she said. “We’ve got to keep the momentum going.”
Talk like that seems out of place in Buffalo. For decades, the Buffalo story was about the decline of a Rust Belt city, and the only momentum we had was on the way down, not up.
We have watched our young people move out because they can’t find good jobs in a job market that has been stagnant for 24 years. If we had just grown as fast as the country since 1990, we would have 146,000 more jobs here than we do now.
We’ve seen silver bullet plans to revive the Buffalo Niagara economy – from Bass Pro and bioinformatics to a Niagara Falls mega-mall – come and go. Since the 1990s, much of the talk about one of our best-known assets, the Buffalo Bills, has centered around whether the team eventually will move.
“We’ve had nothing but bad news here for a very long time,” said Zemsky, whose work with the council has helped the region come up with a thoughtful, long-term plan to revive the local economy without silver bullets.
Now we’re seeing signs of hope all around.
We stop and stare when a pair of tower cranes go up at Terry and Kim Pegula’s HarborCenter hotel and entertainment complex, simply because those cranes, common in most other cities, have rarely been seen here. We’re rediscovering the waterfront as the Canalside project takes shape. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is growing.
Just as important, we’re not fighting among ourselves as much, and we have largely signed on to the regional economic vision spelled out by the development council.
“We no longer are arguing about what we should do,” Gallagher-Cohen said. “We’re arguing about how we should do it.”
The massive commitment by the state, through the Buffalo Billion, certainly is a huge force behind it. But Cuomo, during his stop in Buffalo last week to announce eight local companies that are becoming part of the Start-Up NY program, made a point of noting that the Buffalo Billion’s psychological impact shouldn’t be underestimated.
“It brought back the optimism and the confidence,” Cuomo said. “That was really Buffalo’s issue.”
“It’s not like the Buffalo Billion bought this success,” Cuomo said. “What the Buffalo Billion did was it got your attention, and it got the attention of the people of this city and Western New York, and it gave them something to justify their hope.”
The message of hope that Cuomo was pushing last week during his Buffalo stop, however, was overshadowed by the uproar over the abrupt shutdown of the corruption-hunting Moreland Commission and whether the governor’s office interfered with its investigations. The Moreland Commission, not the Buffalo economy, dominated a news conference that lasted for more than a half hour.
But there’s no denying that the Buffalo Billion is shaping up as a powerful development tool, spurring the RiverBend project that eventually will be home to one of the world’s biggest solar panel factories, and luring IBM Corp. to a new software development hub. It’s behind a new center that will help local manufacturers develop innovative products and creating a genomics medicine center here to help develop treatments for diseases based on an individual’s unique genetic makeup.
But because those projects and others that are part of the initiative will take years to develop, only about 8 percent of the promised $1 billion – a total of $80 million – has been spent so far, Cuomo said.
In all, the state has contracts in place for about $200 million of the Buffalo Billion. Another $300 million has been committed to specific projects, without formal agreements. Add it up, and about half of the Buffalo Billion is spoken for. The remaining $500 million in promised funding has been approved through the state budget, but hasn’t been allocated to a specific project.
“A lot of people think the Buffalo Billion was the reason that Buffalo is doing so well,” Cuomo said. “It is, but not for the reason they think. It’s not because of the actual money. The money is there, but a relatively small percentage of the money has actually been used.”
The psychological impact is being felt with full force, though.
“It keeps building momentum,” said Brendan R. Mehaffy, the executive director of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning, after the RiverBend sale agreement was reached. “It’s attracting additional interest from around the world.”
Even J.P. Bak, the Dutch-born social entrepreneur from Pittsburgh who is starting a tablet PC assembly business in Buffalo with help from the Start-Up NY program after first considering Detroit, noticed the positive buzz.
“Nobody wants to park in an empty parking area,” he said.
“If you asked me four years ago, the major issue Buffalo was dealing with, I would say it was apathy and negativity,” Cuomo said. “It becomes self-fulfilling. Nobody wants to move into an area where everybody is trying to get out. Nobody wants to move into an area where everything is negative and there’s no hope. The Buffalo Billion was an attempt to change that.”
So far, it seems to be working.