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The Five Labors of Buffalo

Myths, money, and heroes

Rob Ford, the aggressively anti-tax, anti-government mayor of Toronto, is proof positive that size, sophistication, prosperity, and even a world-class reputation for good regional governance can’t prevent frustrated voters from making choices they come to regret.

Elected in 2010, Ford’s policy blunders, including an attempted end-run around a very successful waterfront planning process that had steered away from Ford’s developer buddies, made his temporary mandate largely evaporate by 2012. Then, a court told him that an ethics issue was so serious that he would have to vacate his office. An appeals court judge last week overruled that finding, and now Ford gets to hold on until 2014, when he says he’ll run again.

Meanwhile, though, the real news from Toronto, as ever, is economic. The Greater Toronto Area continues to grow, attract immigrants, and put so much more gold into the Golden Horseshoe—there are at least 50,000 residents of Hamilton who commute to Toronto every day—that the central bank and the big private banks alike scramble in tandem to control inflation, in part by keeping a lid on housing debt, without stifling the growth.

Growth is happening in New York City, too. The population of the greater New York metro area is growing, but so is the City itself. Formerly no-go areas of the South Bronx and Brooklyn are filling with development. Immigrants of every hue and background stream in. The Census, the Cornell Program in Applied Demographics, and a team at the Wharton School all predict population growth in the New York metro area over the next decade, including in each of the five boroughs.

Buffalo, of course, is different. The Buffalo metro area will continue to lose population, as will the metros of Rochester, Syracuse, Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh.

Mirror time

New York City voters will choose a new mayor this year. So will Buffalo voters. Mike Bloomberg is term-limited; Byron Brown is not. But the truly influential political actors in places like the Province of Ontario and the State of New York are not the short-term executives in the office of mayor, but rather the provincial premiers and the state governors. And in both places, it’s not the politicians. It’s the big urban economies that are the real decision-makers.

Toronto towers over every other Ontario city, but New York City dwarfs everything else in New York State. Because of our unique history and location, Buffalo sometimes looks north before we look east; proximity means that it’s more likely we’ll catch a Shaw Festival play or take a visiting relative to see the Butterfly Conservancy before we’ll refinance the house and drive seven hours to see a Broadway show. Our isolation from the undisputed cultural, economic, and political center of New York State is real: We are 400 miles from Times Square. Montreal, Quebec, is actually closer to Manhattan than we are. Portland, Maine is closer. Even the capitol of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, is closer.

But it’s not Toronto that’s giving this community an extra $1 billion more of its money, over and above the $1 billion we already get in excess of what we contribute to New York State. It’s New York, the city and its metro area, using the pass-through entity called New York State government. The question this community has had a very hard time asking itself is this: When are we going to understand our dependency, and recognize that it’s not anti-government messaging that catapulted Toronto ahead of Buffalo within the lifetimes of most Buffalonians, but Toronto’s having become less like Buffalo and more like New York City?

And when, oh when, are we going to stop whining about New York and start trying to emulate it?

Five big tasks

The Buffalo Billion has brought forth numerous rent-seekers (the term economists use for people who look for a special government favor or monopoly), each with a more glamorous-sounding plan than the last one. Check the websites of the Brownfield Opportunity Area, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, or the fan-sites that are touting a new waterfront stadium-exhibition-entertainment complex, and scroll through millions of dollars’ worth of pretty pictures of how to burn through even more public money in pursuit of toys, playthings, and games. You have already paid for most of that eye-wash, courtesy of Empire State Development Corporation and its reliable stable of eyewash-producers.

The tough reality is that Cleveland, with its new arena, its new baseball stadium, its new casino, its waterfront development including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is fading. Cleveland and its metro will continue to shrink rapidly. The tough reality is that Pittsburgh, even with its new stadiums, its centrally located trio of universities, its highly regarded entrepreneurship and successful startup-incubating programs, will continue to shrink—but not as fast as it used to, not as fast a Cleveland or Buffalo or the other Upstate metros.

Getting to the point of having a big-enough regional government in the core of your metro area, the way that Toronto and New York do, is evidently a task beyond any hero. But there are five big challenges that all the Rust Belt metros have had a hard time facing up to are like the labors of Hercules: not quite impossible, but achievable, if one happens to be blessed with the assistance of gods like Hermes and Athena. It also helps to have a Herculean combination of strength, intelligence, persistence, and guile.

Task 1

We have to clean out our Augean stables, but not the way Hercules did it: He diverted a river to wash to crap out of the barnyard; we’ve got to wash the barnyard out of our streams. Organized labor in Buffalo is at least aware of the need for a major clean-water infrastructure commitment. A progressive county executive in Syracuse won a national award for doing a regional approach to cleaning up combined-sewer overflow, and has public buy-in for cleanup there. In Buffalo, Riverkeeper is investing more of its reputation in a generalized blue-water campaign, up from a focus on some limited dredging in the Buffalo River—but clean water, a true regional comparative advantage, is precisely nowhere in the economic development lexicon of the state, the regional advisory council, or any elected official.

Task 2

Rescue the poor kids. This shouldn’t be as hard as defeating Cerberus the three-headed dog, but there is zero chance of the Buffalo (Cleveland, Syracuse, etc.) region stopping its slide if kids are segregated by income in school as well as at home. Hamilton, Ontario, is working to follow the example of Raleigh-Durham, with its county-wide school district where no school building has more than four kids eligible for free lunch out of every 10 students. In New York State, Buffalo got a $1 billion check to rebuild the buildings, but not a nickel to regionalize, integrate, mix, or connect kids. The three-headed dog of suburban isolationism, urban isolationism, and administrative triplication wins.

Task 3

Do the homework. There is no public or private university in the Buffalo metro area that made the list of the 100 winners of competitive grants given by the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation, nor is there a Buffalo metro area public or private university with a Nobel Prize winner. This nation’s and the world’s top research institutions support researchers who win peer-reviewed competitions for grants. Hermes, Athena—we need a little help here. Cornell University, the University of Rochester, Columbia, Yeshiva, NYU, Mount Sinai, Sloan-Kettering, Weill, Stony Brook, Rockefeller—all of these are New York State universities and medical schools, all in the top 100 of National Institute of Health grantees, none of them in the 716 area code. The University of Rochester’s engineering faculty alone win more grants worth more money than the entire State University of New York at Buffalo enterprise does.

Task 4

Get out ahead on energy. On the way to get the golden apples of the Hesperides, Hercules helped free poor Prometheus from the daily assault of the eagle the gods had set on him because he’d stolen the secret of fire. We don’t have to steal it, as we have the secret here: hydropower, wind power, and the state’s new commitment to solar power. The region that seeks to regain some reputation for energy should build on its history (Buffalo was the first electrified city, thanks to Niagara Falls), and make an all-out public commitment to renewable, carbon-free energy. Why not a fully electrified public transportation system, powered by regional resources? Would it really cost much of the Buffalo Billion to install solar panels on every public structure, and feed the grid rather than feed from it? Enterprising graduate students take note: We will find support for the numerate scholar who does the analysis to get an MA in applied economics.

Task 5

Recapture regional agriculture. The eyes tend to glaze over at this, but some very wise people have begun to do some integrated thinking about energy sources, arable land, rainfall patterns, and transportation networks. It happens that the Buffalo region is blessed with more hours of sun than any other place in New York State, situated at the very logistical hub that enabled New York City to become the great eastern port for inner North America’s harvests, and expected to continue to receive consistent rainfall while much of the rest of the US suffers both drought and weird weather extremes. There may be more logical Upstate sites for intensive, high value-added agriculture on an industrial scale, but Buffalo is such a site, too. This week, a conference in Linkoping, Sweden, is exploring the new nexus of “vertical” greenhousing and energy-efficient, industrial-scale agriculture in urban settings that are adjacent to fresh water. The Swedish government used to invest in automobile exports. Now it invests in urban agriculture and designs systems for places like Buffalo.

These are the labors that every Rust Belt city should set itself to. These are labors to undertake within, because merely taking delivery of massive amounts of any kind of outside aid doesn’t seem to be what works to transform regional economies. Checking the list of grant-getting scientists and research hospitals and universities, both Cleveland and Pittsburgh score impressively, with hundreds of millions of dollars of annual victories —but those regional economies are as undermined as Buffalo’s by suburban sprawl, administrative fracturing, and the spatial isolation of poor children in city-only school districts. The Toronto and New York examples—of regional governance and highly dense development—are lost on Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester…

But of all those places looking for a leg up, only the Buffalo metro has not only its current annual subsidy but an additional year’s worth of free money. Golden apples indeed—and we didn’t even have to steal them. Lacking a local Hercules, it’s nevertheless raining gold here.

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at www.sunypress.edu.

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