This time, it really does feel different.
The cranes – first along the waterfront and now on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus – are the most tangible signs of economic revival.
But what’s behind the cranes is just as important: a plan; a community consensus that hasn’t been swallowed up in parochial bickering; and lots of money – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion.
But is it for real?
So far, it seems like it is. In a region that has heard more than its share of grand plans over the past quarter century that ended up going nowhere – from a factory outlet mega-mall in Niagara Falls to Bass Pro and the Pataki administration’s plan to create a bioinformatics hub here – seeing is believing.
“I think the one big thing is being able to actually see the physical signs of these things happening,” said William Pottle, the national sales manager at Boston Valley Terra Cotta, who moved back to the Buffalo Niagara region five years ago after spending 17 years in Seattle.
“For so long, it was ‘see the dreams.’ Now you can actually see the cranes,” he said.
Says Richard Lipsitz, the president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation and a member of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency board of directors: “Things are taking place here that are astounding.”
Of course, nothing is guaranteed. This spark in the Buffalo Niagara region’s economy faces threats - economic and political.
But challenges aside, the change is astounding by Buffalo standards, where for the past 60 years, economic growth has pretty much been something that happens someplace else.
For the first time, the region has a plan, a road map for the future that extends beyond the next silver bullet project. It’s the fruit of what local developer Howard Zemsky describes as the most studied and prescribed economy in the nation. The focus is on laying the groundwork for businesses in a handful of fast-growing industries, rather than relying on massive taxpayer handouts for a select few ventures that have failed to live up to their promises.
It started more than two years ago, with an economic development plan that put aside the region’s long focus on silver bullet projects in favor of a longer-term approach for growth in industries where the Buffalo area has competitive advantages.
“Playing to our strengths” is how Zemsky likes to describe it.
“We finally have a plan that, I believe, all of us believe in and is a road map to the future,” said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, the president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.
It also helps to have the money to put the plan into action – something that hasn’t always been the case with past initiatives. This time the regional council’s initiatives have received unprecedented backing from Cuomo.
Cuomo’s approach aims for “shock and awe.” He went far beyond the statewide regional council program in Buffalo when he pledged to commit an additional $1 billion in state funds for local economic development projects over 10 years. He was looking to draw attention to his efforts to revive the Buffalo economy – and he got it.
Cuomo last week pledged to fund the $680 million remaining on his Buffalo Billion commitment, but provided few details on when it would be allocated and how it would be spent.
“We have a governor who looks at things and says: ‘Why do we do it like that? We can improve on that,’ ” said Zemsky, co-chairman of the local development council and point man for Cuomo’s economic initiatives in the region. “He is relentlessly in pursuit of improving our economy and helping us build on our strengths.”
Gallagher-Cohen said that backing from Albany is essential.
“For the first time in my professional life, we have a governor who actually cares about Western New York,” she said. “That is the difference-maker.”
A new way
Gallagher-Cohen said there’s also something more behind the burst of major construction projects. She sees big changes taking place in the way the Buffalo Niagara business and development community operates.
“Now we argue about how we’re going to do something, but we don’t argue about what we should be doing,” she said.
The Buffalo Billion initiatives, which currently total more than $380 million, mostly follow a similar strategy: Invest in facilities and programs that will help the Buffalo Niagara region stand out in a particular industry or provide long-term services and facilities that will help local businesses become more competitive and act as a magnet to lure firms to the region.
That strategy is behind the governor’s signature development initiative for the region: the $225 million state investment to create a hub for clean energy and high-tech businesses on the old Republic Steel site in South Buffalo.
The $50 million local investment in medical genomics research that was announced earlier this month follows the same model, built around the University at Buffalo’s supercomputer that state officials hope will become a magnet for life sciences firms that need heavyweight computing power to crunch vast amounts of complex data in their quest for breakthrough treatments.
“Under this model, the state builds and owns a research and development facility, which is a state-of-the-art facility,” Cuomo explained during a stop in Buffalo late last year. “Companies that need research and development facilities come to Buffalo because of the facility.”
“We improve the facility over time so we’re always the state-of-the-art facility, bringing more and more companies to Buffalo,” Cuomo said, comparing the strategy to the hugely successful state initiative that has created a strong nanotechnology industry in Albany since the 1980s. “That’s what happened in Albany.”
But it’s also behind other lower-profile ventures that would create a worker training center for the region’s manufacturers and a center with sought-after equipment and resources to help small to midsize firms develop new products that they otherwise might not be able to afford to do. It continued with this month’s announcement of a $50 million investment for the University at Buffalo to partner with a group of New York City medical researchers on genomic medical initiatives.
What could go wrong?
There’s no guarantee that any of this will provide enough of a jolt to jump-start the local economy and turn it from a laggard to a leader. Dozens of things could go wrong. Medical genomics firms might decide they can do their research and crunch their numbers just as well elsewhere.
Clean energy companies might not think the hub the state plans to create here is all that special.
“The clean technology industry is relatively volatile, given the uncertainty of future regulation and the pace of technological development,” said analyst David Strungis in a recent report from the Moody’s credit rating agency. “Its ability to jump-start a struggling, post-industrial economy is untested.”
If it was easy – or even close to a sure thing – for governments to target fast-growing industries and build them from scratch, every town and county and state in the nation would be doing it. Cuomo’s Albany model worked once, when it was at the early stages of what turned out to be a booming industry. Can it work again?
Manufacturers may keep cutting jobs in the face of fierce global competition, despite all the efforts to focus on high-end factory work and train workers for those more sophisticated jobs locally.
Will the HarborCenter hockey rink and office complex, along with the emerging Canalside waterfront attractions, be enough of a catalyst to spur other developments and bring enough visitors to Buffalo to fill the hundreds of hotel rooms now being built downtown?
What if Cuomo were to leave office after 2016, either because of presidential ambitions or a post in a new Democratic administration in Washington, D.C.? Would the money he has promised still be there?
Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said the massive state investment from the Cuomo administration is yielding benefits already, even with most of the initiatives still in the early stages of development. Buffalo is beginning to get noticed nationally, and not just because of a snowstorm.
“It shines the spotlight on what’s happening in the community,” he said. “I think the momentum and the progress we have made in Buffalo is unalterable.”
email: email@example.com This year’s Prospectus edition in today’s newspaper takes a close look at the Buffalo Niagara region’s ongoing transformation, with detailed maps of development projects in downtown Buffalo and on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and stories about how industries are preparing for the future.