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The Incredible Shrinking Metro

Growth R not Us—building and buying our way toward decline, ignoring the need to manage the process

It’s time to count up the money.

There is around $150 million in taxpayer money that has been committed for the Erie Canal Harbor development, on top of more than $46 million in public funds that have already been spent, and the plan is to spend it out over the next few years to build a retail and entertainment district where nobody has shopped for anything but sex and hockey tickets since about 1965.

The New York State Department of Transportation will spend $80 million or more to turn the Scajaquada Expressway into the Scajaquada Parkway, where instead of driving four minutes at 60 miles per hour to get from the Thruway to the Kensington, it will take eight minutes at 35 miles per hour to cruise through Delaware Park.

The Buffalo Public School district’s Joint Schools Construction Project, by the time the project ends a few years from now, will have spent at least $500 million on refurbishing 30-odd school buildings in the City of Buffalo.

The towering H.H. Richardson complex started out being a $100 million project, all New York State funds, and has about $75 million left to spend on just the initial phases of redemption, which should become our new word for that combination of revitalization, resuscitation, re-imagination, and ultimately re-use that so much around here needs.

Buffalo State College will spend around $300 million over the next few years on its various dormitory, classroom, stadium, and other projects, after the $35 million that was spent to give us the new Burchfield-Penney Arts Center.

Notwithstanding political charges about “squandered money,” Erie County under Joel Giambra spent $150 million of its $210 million in tobacco money on long-overdue road, bridge, and culvert work, with the rest going to ECMC, the Darwin Martin House, the Frank Lloyd Wright Boathouse, the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, and a long list of other cultural and building-repair projects.

The Peace Bridge plaza and bridge expansion project is supposed to cost $600 million.

And if UB gets its way, there will be another $100 million or so in the next couple of years, on the way to a hoped-for $1 billion, to build out the UB 2020 project.

So when you tot it all up, a couple of billion dollars of public money have been committed to local projects, with at least $1 billion already spent since 2000, and there is a good prospect of another $1 billion to $2 billion being spent here between now and 2020—mainly on new stuff, and not counting ongoing road repair work.

So how do we measure the impact of the $2 billion to $3 billion in investments, all made between 2000 and 2020, on the Buffalo area?

One answer: Our population is projected to shrink by around 65,000 by 2020.

Shrinking cities

If money alone were the answer to our region’s economic and demographic future, ours would be bright. Money alone is evidently not the answer.

What is? At a recent conference in Dayton, Ohio, a bunch of current and former officials, think-tankers, and economic development types got together to try to find out. These folks met in order to try to make sense of the common experience of the Rust Belt—which is that despite the ongoing investment of billions of dollars of public funds in various kinds of infrastructure repairs and amenity improvements, the bottom is slowly, but continually, falling out of our Great Lakes cities.

Driving the seven hours from Buffalo to Dayton takes one past Erie, Youngstown, Cleveland, Akron, and Columbus. Except for Cleveland and Columbus, there probably isn’t a single structure over 10 stories tall between Buffalo and Dayton. Small- and medium-sized industrial towns, with lots of low-density sprawl, is the norm in all that rolling countryside that in Revolutionary War days was the old Northwest Territory—the territory in which all the cities, towns, villages, and counties were set up in the same way as medieval English cities, towns, villages, and shires. What they have in common is that history and that organization—and their current status as shrinking cities. Various estimates based on Census data all concur that they will all lose population between now and 2030.

Erie, Pennsylvania is shrinking. Youngstown and Cleveland and all the other Ohio cities, except Columbus, are shrinking. Dayton itself—home to the Wright Brothers, former home to huge automobile-parts and cash-register manufacturing—has all the right stuff: a nice new riverfront plaza, a handsome new performing arts center, a saloon strip that’s conveniently located near the central business district. And Dayton is, like the rest of them, emptying. The city’s core looks well-kept. The huge airport is at most 20 minutes away. The whole region, like ours, is sprawling, and fading away notwithstanding billions in new infrastructure inputs.

The folks from the Brookings Institution and from Greater Ohio Policy Center assembled people from Youngstown, and from Rochester, and from Detroit and Flint, Michigan, where the automobile industry that has been such a large presence in all these cities cratered more deeply than in any of the rest of them. Youngstown and Flint have adopted versions of “smart shrinkage,” specifically land-banking, so that those cities’ remaining taxpayers don’t have to keep footing the bill for services for large tracts of abandoned territory—acreage that may sooner become home to the easterly-migrating cougars and coyotes than to people. Smart shrinkage is a smart policy response. We don’t have it in Buffalo, yet, because of a political tussle that resulted in Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown getting Governor David Paterson to veto Assemblyman Sam Hoyt’s unanimously enacted land-bank bill last year.

Soon, there will be proceedings from the Dayton conference. And again, at this conference as at others, a couple of people advocated for a White House task force on Great Lakes urban regions, because it’s in those metros that the problems are all the same—sprawl without growth, population loss, mass abandonment of housing, growing dependency, de-industrialization, and of course the racial isolation within old city boundaries that was made worse by Nixon-era Supreme Court decisions, the ones that told school districts that they had to desegregate within those old boundaries rather than across their metro regions.

The metros that are not governed as metros are pretty much all in the Great Lakes, and they are pretty much all dying. These are the same metros where poor kids go to poor-kid schools. It’s not just the cities that are shrinking. Their metros are, too.

Existential dilemma or a simple problem to solve?

If we’re spending all this money on all these projects, should we not expect that our lives will be better – and if not our lives, the lives of our successors? For surely it is far too glib to suggest, as a famous economist did recently, that investing billions in infrastructure is a bad idea per se. A new airport, a new calmer parkway, a restored Erie Canal district, a replenished or re-imagined H.H.Richardson complex that is no longer the state insane asylum—especially if it’s in a restored Olmsted park—we know that all these are desirable amenities that will make Buffalo as special as Dayton’s handsome performance center makes it.

But growth is who Americans are. If we are not growing, are we still Americans? Are we the hopeful, adventurous, forward-looking people in the same way that people are on the East Coast and the West Coast, in the Sunbelt and the mountain and desert states, where there is growth? Today’s American population is about 310 million. In 2030, when the Rust Belt will have shrunk, the rest of America will have grown to 370-plus million. Birth rates in the Great Lakes metros are declining to levels known in Hungary, eastern Germany, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and other small countries of the old Soviet bloc—places known for great cultural sophistication, world-class architecture and universities, dilapidated and abandoned heavy industry, and rapidly aging populations.

Renewing the Great Lakes cities will have to mean change, of course. The evidence so far is that billions of dollars of infrastructure does not change the population dynamic.

After the Dayton conference, I had a brief email chat with John Norquist, currently president of the Congress for the New Urbanism and former mayor of Milwaukee, which has faced the same Rust Belt issues we have. Norquist agrees with the analysis of Gerald Grant of Syracuse, whose new book Hope and Despair in the American City indicted racial polarization and city-only rather than metro-wide school desegregation as principle culprits in the decline of the North. In Erie, Youngstown, Cleveland, Akron, Dayton, Rochester and Buffalo, most blacks are poor, most whites are old, most kids go to municipally defined schools and never cross borders to mix with folks from different kinds of households. In Milwaukee, by contrast, where there’s school choice, and vouchers, a re-migration to the city is underway. In Milwaukee, unlike in the shrinking cities of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, the city population is growing. Perhaps the lesson is simply that we can’t build or spend our way out of decline, but that we might be able to engineer our way toward viability.

Bruce Fisher is a former deputy executive for Erie County and currently visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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