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Getting to Square One

Parsing the numbers, steering the trends, as the city prepares for the Congress of the New Urbanism in June

Life is good! Things are looking up! In another month or so, an international gathering of very smart, very positive, very influential urbanists will come to Buffalo to enjoy our architecture, our parks, our weather, our water, and our prospects. The Congress for the New Urbanism will bring big thinkers, enthusiasts, and city-fix-it gurus from all over the place.

In some circles in Buffalo, we’re preparing for the event by practicing hymns of self-congratulation. In other circles, there is trepidation.

No jitters needed, folks. We should welcome a look-over by some fresh eyes, and some robust discussion, and tours in open-air buses led by local experts as well as tours led by folks who have toured dozens and dozens of cities. Comparison is good. Let’s expect and embrace conversation with some people who will do some searching, some tire-kicking, and some polite and possibly even uncomfortable questioning of what we do and what we are and where we’re going.

But let’s brace ourselves with some data—the first chunk of which should be about how our economy is doing, actually. The latest Brookings Institution Metro Monitor says that employment in the Buffalo area is now about where it was in 2008, which means that by Brookings’s accounting, we’re back to about square one.

That would mean that the Great Recession here is over. That would be great news; it would be even greater good news if we were just a bit stronger than we were before the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 set off a national and international economic swoon.

But let’s ’fess up: The numbers here are actually down a bit. Back in January 2008, there were 579,100 people in the workforce here, with a 6.1 percent unemployment rate. As the new year dawned, there were just under 17,000 fewer people working in Erie County, and just about 4,000 fewer people working in Niagara County, than there were in 2008. At the end of 2013, there were more than 34,000 unemployed people in Erie County, The unemployment rate was 7.1 percent.

We’re doing better than much of the rest of the country, except for places like North Dakota, where the fracking boom has led to 25 percent growth in just the past year. As the new annual report of M&T Bank just pointed out, in an atypically positive introductory essay by its chairman and CEO, incomes are growing here—not booming, but growing nonetheless, in a manner the author likened to the Aesop fable of the tortoise and the hare.

In the aggregate, things are doing just fine. Recovery in employment here is faster and better than in Rochester, Syracuse, or Binghamton. There’s an exhaustive breakdown that our federal Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes that shows, by job description, how much folks here actually make for the work that they do. For the folks here who are working, there’s a lot of good-paying work for managers, number-crunchers, healthcare workers, teachers, technicians, and other skilled occupations. And with the employment rebound, the population decline of the area is slowing. Maybe it’s even stopped!

The largest employers here are the same as they’ve been for a couple of decades: a couple of big banks, a couple of grocery store chains, the hospitals, a couple of big insurance companies, auto dealerships and big HR firms, the Seneca casinos and Delaware North, plus government: New York State, Erie County, the 28 school districts and the 25 towns, three cities, and 16 villages. Don’t sweat the government employment, unless you’re sweating that it’s not enough: It’s holding steady at about 16 percent of total employment here. But note that in Forbes Magazine’s latest annual list of America’s richest counties, six out of the top 10 are dominated by taxpayer-funded enterprises, including the federal government, and most especially the Defense Department.

And while employment here is creeping back up to where it was before the 2008 calamity, there hasn’t been much disruption in the positve trend of growing metropolitan GDP. The Buffalo-Niagara Falls metro economy is now over $40 billion in inflation-adjusted money. It dipped below $39 billion during the recession. But the latest estimate of the total value of goods and services here is half a billion dollars larger than it was in 2006, before the housing bust started, before the Wall Street cyclone hit.

Drilling down into detail

Come June, the visitors who go to lots of other cities are going to take a look at all the stuff that first meets the eye. They’ll see the construction cranes for the new Delaware North headquarters at Chippewa and Delaware, and probably won’t ask about the vernacular curve-faced building that was recently there. They’ll see the construction cranes for the new hockey complex, and maybe they’ll see their faces reflected in the canal-shaped reflecting pools where the old Memorial Auditorium recently was.

Anybody with eyes to see will note the barrier/corridor we call Oak and Elm Streets, the very Cold War sort of Berlin Wall that separates downtown, with its two million square feet of empty office space, from the East Side, with its 1,400 acres of parcels that are either empty or worth less than $5,000 apiece. (That is correct: 1,400 acres, in a central city, in a regional hub, that could be purchased outright, at fair-market value, for less than $5,000 per parcel.)

There will be tours of the the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which is the cluster of older, newer, and about-to-be- or just-repurposed buildings that houses Roswell Park Cancer Center, the Hauptman-Woodward Research Center, and the rapidly consolidating Kaleida Health System, which for years said it employed 10,000 or more, but which now, according to Erie County, employes about 8,500. The out-of-towners who look at lots and lots of other cities will notice that now Buffalo, too, is investing hundreds of millions of public dollars in a new medical center complex in hopes of achieving a comparative advantage over other mid-size cities that are also pursuing this strategy.

And, if the weather ever warms, the visitors will witness this year’s splendid, highly idiosyncratic, deeply localized self-improvement and life-affirmation program we know as the home-gardening renaissance. Buffalo inventors gave the world the grain elevator, and electric power, and Shredded Wheat, and the chicken wing—and the Rust Belt urban renaissance-as-a-transitive-verb movement, one flower-patch at a time.

We are way ahead of most cities on grass-roots civic engagement, but way behind inrecalibrated, refreshed public transportation. We are marching with seven-league boots toward celebrating our water, and now, thanks to the Buffalo Sewer Authority, moving a step or two toward catching some of the stormwater that still flushes billions of gallons of our own shit into the celebrated drink.

Come June and the arrival of the new urbanists, hospitality employment will grow as it always does as summer rolls in. The ice boom, presumably, will have been gone a week or two. And we will still be pushing along on the path toward 2008’s numbers. Were we more focused on green energy, public transportation, regional land-use planning, and resettling more refugees, we’d be back there to that pre-crash future already. But hope springs eternal—especially when other folks are watching.

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