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Reflections on Three Buffalo News Stories on a Chill Sunday
by John Henry Schlegel
Sunday the 19th was a gloomy day, so I pretty much read all of that day’s Buffalo News. The paper produced three stories relevant to the subject of economic development. Two were quite good. Tim Graham wrote an over-a-page-long cover story in the Spotlight section about the possible community impact were the Bills’ franchise to leave Orchard Park. In the Business section, Stephen T. Watson profiled Sherex Fastening Solutions, a small, profitable company in the Town of Tonawanda that custom-makes the gizmos that hold metal sheets together. One was accurate, but deeply mistaken. Also in the Business section, David Robinson offered a piece denouncing IDA tax reduction support for the reuse of vacant commercial sites. Taken together, these stories provide useful illustrations of the state of development thinking in this region.
Economists like to tell the story of the city were everyone did the laundry of someone else and got paid for it. Everyone had a job, but of course, the city never grew. How then, do cities grow? By making something—a product or service—that is exported to other cities, nationally or internationally, is the simple answer. This is true whether all of the city’s residents have jobs or whether only some residents have jobs. So, the endless focus on jobs as the indicia of a strong economy, while politically attractive, is misplaced. Jobs are the result of a growing economy, not its cause.
Of course, people are happier when they have jobs and happier people are more likely to re-elect those politicians who can claim to have brought jobs, especially if they are the so-called good jobs that support a middle class family. However, one might produce the same effect were one simply to increase the price of laundry! Everyone would appear to be wealthier, but the economy would not have grown.
Thus, the problem of economic development, much bruited about of late, is nowhere as simple as the mantra—It’s all about jobs!—endlessly repeated by local politicians, would make it seem. A good example of the complexity is Tim Graham’s story about living without the Bills. He suggests that the Bills make us feel good about the place where we live, but they contribute very little, probably nothing, to the economic growth of the local economy. They many even be a net loss to that economy.
What then brings growth? Well, it is not the landing of a large new plant producing goods for a business headquartered elsewhere, such as seems to be envisioned by Mr. Cuomo’s billion dollar challenge. Such transplants do bring jobs, and jobs make locals happy, and happy locals re-elect politicians, but the profits from these activities go elsewhere, as do the profits from any new products or services that might by chance be developed at the transplant. Growth comes from new products or services developed and produced locally, or if not produced locally, such as is the case with Stephen Watson’s story about Sherex, at least returned locally, a clear second best.
The difficulty with the recognition that economic development comes from the local creation of products and services for export, of course, is of little help unless one knows how to bring about such local activity. Unfortunately, no one does. No economist, no politician, no IDA director, no local or national pundit, no newspaper editor. Oh, yes, a lot of ink is spilled on the subject and a lot of hot air expelled as well, but mostly the precise triggers that bring forth economic development are bits of magic that no one really understands. And here we get back to the Bills.
I don’t go to Bills games, watch them on TV, or even read the sports page, yet it is dumbfoundingly obvious to me that the Bills add to the quality of life in the region called Buffalo. The loss of the franchise would reduce that quality of life and so make the place less attractive for locals or people who might consider coming here to start a business that just might, and no more than might, develop a product or service that could be exported to markets elsewhere. And so, with consideration of matters of quality of life, we now come to David Robinson, channeling County Executive, Mark Poloncarz, and Amherst Supervisor, Barry Weinstein, on the evils of IDAs supporting adaptive reuse of empty commercial sites.
Though I have taught with the director of the Amherst IDA, as well as with Erie County’s deputy county executive and chief economic development officer, I actually have no opinion about any specific project funded, delayed, or not funded by any IDA. The projects in question may have been good or awful or most likely somewhere in between. I simply don’t know enough to evaluate them. But I do know one thing. Empty storefronts or commercial buildings do not increase the quality of life in any neighborhood.
When, over the past 75 years, the City of Buffalo let such vacancies proliferate in many neighborhoods, the city allowed the quality of life to decline in those places. When the quality of life visibly declines in any place, any reason to live there, any reason to maintain property, any reason to pick up the trash, any reason to help maintain order in the streets so that children may thrive out of doors, declines as well. We all know and are embarrassed by the resulting shabbiness, as demonstrated by our response to Tom Brady’s comments about driving in to downtown from the airport.
That at least some suburban towns are trying not to follow the City of Buffalo down the rat hole of the slow deterioration of the quality of life that we, yes all of us in this region, allowed the City to experience, and with wholly predictable results, should not be held against those towns. They are trying to do their best to keep this place we all know as Buffalo from becoming less attractive as a matter of quality of life. Doing so may never bring economic development to the region, but at least it will not keep economic development from coming or even worse, suggest to local producers of exports that somewhere else would be a more attractive region to live and work.
> John Henry Schlegel
John Henry Schlegel teaches about regional economic development at the University at Buffalo
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