Where to next, Buffalo?

Buffalo, my hometown, has been receiving a lot of press lately. And somewhat surprisingly, not all of it bad. Here’s a brief rundown of the articles I have seen lately:

  • Buffalo’s Field of Dreams (WSJ), in which Jake Halpern discusses a British businessman’s plan to build a tall skyscraper in Buffalo and Buffalo’s residents pinning their hopes of urban reinvigoration on this construction project. Halpern says this is passing the buck on fixing the city and avoiding real changes such as improving the schools.
  • Wake Up Toronto—You’re Bigger than You Think (Globe and Mail: Word document file), in which Richard Florida attempts to demonstrate that Toronto is great because it is part of a greater metropolitan area that includes Buffalo and other cities. Florida argues that if the border can get its act together, these cities can act as a single unit and Toronto can be great, and Buffalo can ride Toronto’s coattails to its former glory.
  • Can Buffalo Ever Come Back? (City Journal), in which Edward Glaeser argues that Buffalo should not try to reclaim its place as a captain of industry and as a large city; this was a one-time thing. (A nice summary of Buffalo’s rise and fall over time is included.) Instead, Buffalo should concentrate on being a great small city, which is well within its capacity to do.
  • More Buffalo Blogging (Economist), where the Economist bloggers mention some of these articles and discuss them. There is a focus here on the international border issue.

So, what’s my take? Buffalo is clearly not the city it once was, that much is clear. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. As Glaeser mentions, not trying to sustain a large city can be beneficial. This is similar to the concept discussed in last year’s NYT Year in Ideas called Creative Shrinkage, where a city can get better by becoming smaller. If Buffalo first concentrates on being a really good and efficient small city, then it can be rewarded with growth. People will not be attracted to a city simply because it used to have more people.

Another way to make the city more efficient (and which can be done in tandem with the above), is incorporating large portions of Erie County into the city of Buffalo. By making the Buffalo metropolitan area a single entity (a consolidated city-county), a number of effects will be achieved. First, people will realize the true size of Buffalo (and no, I am not attempting to return Buffalo to its glory—this would simply allow people to recognize that Buffalo is more than just a dying inner core). Second, the government will become much more efficient, and things will get done, as the entire Buffalo area suddenly realizes that they are in this together. Unfortunately, due to political short-sightedness this is unlikely to happen, but it sure is a nice pipe dream.

In terms of industry, Buffalo is beginning to take advantage of the great state university it has there. It’s going for a biotech jackpot, which might be unreasonable, but if Buffalo can increase its white-collar companies, it will certainly have immigrants something to offer, as well as its neighbor Toronto (if the border crossings become smoother). These things, coupled with an ability to attract people who want to actually stay to raise their families (which Joel Kotkin contends is the recipe for a great economy), could be the way towards a renaissance.

And of course, Buffalo has the image problem to contend with. In truth, it has a lot to offer (architecture, great airport, good cost of living), but let’s focus on the weather. Frankly, it is time that Buffalonians (yes, that improbable title is what we call ourselves) go on the offensive. Buffalo has great weather. If you simply want some sort of neutered weather patterns, go somewhere south or west. But if you crave four distinct seasons, there is no better place than Buffalo. The summer is warm but not humid. The fall is crisp without much rain. Spring is pleasant and mild. And winter: Buffalo has a bona fide winter. It is snowy without being too cold. So if you love the beauty of snowfall without the piercing chill of other northern cities, Buffalo provides that. So, make fun of Buffalo’s weather if you want. But really, you’re just wrong.

Okay, so what does all this mean for Buffalo? Well, Buffalo will never become a first-tier city. But Buffalo should become more efficient and play to its strengths. By doing that, and taking advantage of university spinoffs, it could become something of a technology/service center up in the Rust Belt, similar to Pittsburgh. Is that aiming low? Maybe, but first Buffalo needs to tighten up and get its act together before it begins to aim high. It can happen, it might just take some time.

4 Responses to “Where to next, Buffalo?”

  1. Tory December 6, 2007 at 4:37 pm Permalink

    Is a Buffalo resurgence hampered by NY state laws that are anti-business, pro-union, and high-tax? I can see how NY gets away with it – too many businesses “have” to be in NYC, no matter what the hassles or costs. But do those laws effectively kill the rest of the state competitively, including Buffalo? Esp. when businesses and people have other modest-size city options like Austin, Raleigh-Durham, Ft. Worth, San Antonio, Charlotte, etc. in pro-business, right-to-work, low-tax states.

    In fact, I think this same dynamic holds other states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania back, no matter what the cities of Philly, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, or Cincinnati try to do. Their state laws essentially take them “off the radar” for business investment and population migration.

  2. Sam Arbesman December 12, 2007 at 1:52 pm Permalink

    This is also an important factor. A recent op-ed piece in the WSJ The (Tax) War Between the States makes this exact point.

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