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October 27, 2007

Richard Florida

Can Buffalo Come Back?

« Coming in the Globe and Mail | Main | Globe and Mail Column »

Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser has a new piece in the City Journal on Buffalo's prospects (h/t: Alison Kemper). His  answer: "Probably not—and government should stop bribing people to stay there." Whoa - talk about tough love. He continues:

The truth is, the federal government has already spent vast sums of taxpayer money over the past half-century to revitalize Buffalo, only to watch the city continue to decay. Future federal spending that tries to revive the city will likely prove equally futile. The federal government should instead pursue policies that help Buffalo’s citizens, not the city as a geographical place. State and local policymakers could take steps that might—might—help Buffalo stave off its demise, if they avoid the errors of the past. ...

As for state and local politicians, reducing New York’s unnecessary taxes and regulation would be a good idea, since if Buffalo is ever to rebound, even somewhat, private innovators, not government projects, will be the primary reason. Better schools and safe streets would also be key to improving Buffalo’s chances of survival. Yet though such policies would improve things, they would not restore the boomtown of the early twentieth century; the economic trends working against such a prospect are simply too great. The best scenario would be for Buffalo to become a much smaller but more vibrant community—shrinking to greatness, in effect. Far better that outcome than wasting yet more effort and resources on the foolish project of restoring the City of Light’s past glory.

I'm realistically optimistic. The key to Buffalo's future lies less in U.S. policy and more on the dynamic economy here on the Canadian side of the border. The Tor-Buff-Chester mega-region is Buffalo's greatest hope. It's in the interest of Buffalo and New York policy-makers - including the current front-runners in both parties - to make sure that border works effectively. Another key is establishing better transit links to Toronto. Another thing that Buffalo and Rochester have to offer is world-class health-care, that could potentially serve the mega-region. The key is to think and plan across borders  - in terms of the mega. Our mega is a growth magnet and that growth can spill-across to Buffalo and upstate New York. It doesn't necessarily have to, but with the proper framework and actions, it could.


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Buffalo has some of the cheapest real estate in the country. We need to market this to firms in Toronto. A house that would sell for $200,000 in Ithaca NY or $400,000 in NY city would only go for about $90,000 in Buffalo.

Second, Florida is right, a transportation link (in my opinion high-speed rail) would be perfect. Canadians could come to Buffalo to shop and Buffalonians could go to Toronto to work.

Next, Toronto is overcrowded with shipping containers that arrive by rail. These containers pass right through Buffalo only to move to a place where the congestion is a disorganized mess. Buffalo could help alleviate some of this congestion by becoming a container redistribution hub.

Last, don't forget we're located right on Lake Erie which is a fine location for all kinds of Water based events.

One more thing, Buffalo receives less snow per year than Syracuse. We have this reputation of turning into the "Eastern Front" every December through March. Many other cities in the Northeast receive more snow than us and I think this reputation really hurts us.

Sean Galbraith

With respect Buffalo, Rochester and the other rust belt cities... but what is in it for Toronto? Toronto already has a somewhat struggling heavy industrial sibling in Hamilton and Oshawa. What advantage is there for Toronto to form an alliance with Buffalo?

Jerry Yarnetsky

For better or worse, I agree with the notion of shrinking to glory.

First, I think glory is a great word for Buffalo. I lived there as a child and return every few years to visit family. Every time I visit things seem better. Buffalo simply has a great culture-- Elmwood Village, for instance, is absolutely wonderful.

However, Buffalo government was built up for a city of 600,000-- not 280,000. Local government has to restructure from the ground up.

That will mean lost jobs and services, it could lead to lower taxes and the ability to better maintain the remaining infrastructure.

I think action by the libraries is a good example. The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library reduced its system by (I believe) 18 branches and laid off 100 employees. Instead of struggling with a larger system, I hope BECPL can become vibrant with the smaller system.

I'm a progressive-- I believe good government has a vital role in society -- but you have to be realistic.


Great comments all. Sean, a much improved and efficient border for one. And access to a huge market. Plus, there have to be ways to leverage the world-class medical and health-care institutions, and scientific and technical institutions, across the US border. Others care to weigh in?

Gary Dare

Fifteen years ago, some Canadian companies were threatening to cross the border from southern Ontario to the Buffalo/Erie region. One of those who executed their threat was Massey-Ferguson, who changed their name and continued mediocre results. So maybe location wasn't their problem. Any other success or failure stories that you folks can share?

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