Moving Back to Buffalo: Two Years Past

31 Jul

Its been just over two years since I moved back to Buffalo. The moving truck pulled up to my new house on July 4th, 2007 – a rainy day I won’t forget as all of my boxes became soaked, and the moving men, already disgruntled for having to work the holiday, became more and more irritable the wetter and wetter they got.

Coincidently, I moved back during the second iteration of Buffalo Homecoming. I did not plan or intend that, but the timing embarrassingly led me to become the “living example” that people really do return. I remember thinking that if this much of a fuss was created about one person moving back, the city must have more problems than I know.

Unpacking took most of our time, and so we could not do many Buffalo Homecoming activities. But we did manage to squeeze in a cocktail party at the Larkin Building, still smelling of a fresh coat of paint, where we heard about all sorts of wonderful plans for Buffalo. It was at that party I first met Marti Gorman, organizer of Buffalo Homecoming and all-around Buffalo-booster, whom I would later work with on future Buffalo Homecoming celebrations, the Buffalo Freelance Writers Collaborative, and other events. I also met Chris Smith and Ethan Cox, future colleagues of mine with WNYMedia. In retrospect, Buffalo turned out, once again, to be a city of two degrees of separation.

I had been away from Buffalo for 12 years. For most of those 12 years, I did not contemplate moving back. What changed my mind? As I think back on it now, one odd item tipped the balance. As my family planned all the things we were looking for, and started to settle on Buffalo, we were doing lots of research. In January 2007, I happened upon this article from The Economist. I included it in full; its an interesting trip down memory lane.

Steeled for recovery

Dec 19th 2006 | BUFFALO
From The Economist print edition

It’s not only small towns that are re-thinking themselves

“WHEN the wind blows right, everybody in downtown smells the Cheerios,” says Charles Rosenow, an economic-development official in Buffalo. Indeed, the scent is unmistakable even half a mile from the General Mills factory along the Buffalo river.

Few other relics from the industrial glory days of Buffalo are still working. The city’s population has plunged by more than half since 1950, from 580,000 then to 280,000 today. Though Buffalo remains the largest city in upstate New York, sections of its waterfront are a picture of industrial ruin. All but two of the city’s 17 concrete grain elevators lie empty, flanked by overgrown railway tracks. Bethlehem Steel closed its plant in 1983, laying off thousands. The remnant of the car industry is trying to buy out its Buffalo workers.

What went wrong? The city was riding high in the 19th and early 20th centuries as the Erie Canal, which has a terminus at Buffalo, opened up commerce between the Great Lakes and Albany (and, further down the Hudson, New York City and the Atlantic). The slump began in earnest after the opening in 1959 of the St Lawrence Seaway, which bypassed the Erie Canal. Free trade and outsourcing helped kill off the manufacturing plants.

But better times may lie ahead. Buffalo officials brim with ideas, and some are being implemented. A 110m-gallon (416m-litre) ethanol plant scheduled to open next year will put four of the gigantic grain elevators back into use for corn storage. The original terminus of the Erie Canal is being rebuilt to attract tourists and shops; and private developers, tempted by cheap property prices, are pouring money into old buildings. There is talk of making Buffalo a biomedical technology hub, complementing the city’s enormous cancer-research centre, and of building a casino near the centre of town. One looming worry is commerce with Canada, which will be complicated by stricter passport rules next year as well as by delays in widening a bridge across the border.

The best news may be the election of Eliot Spitzer, who takes over as governor in January. Buffalo’s relations with Albany, the state capital, have often been strained. Upstate New Yorkers fret that Manhattan gets too much money and attention, and that state regulations and taxes hurt Buffalo’s ability to compete. But “I think the upstate cities are going to have a champion in Eliot Spitzer,” says Sam Hoyt, a state assemblyman from the region. Mr Spitzer made redevelopment of upstate New York one of his campaign priorities. He had the bad luck to be in Buffalo during the freak October snowstorm that dumped two feet (60cm) of snow on the city. Despite having to spend the night in the airport, he remains keen on Buffalo, even daring to visit again shortly after the election. That must be a good sign.

The Buffalo described in that article was not the one I had left 12 years earlier. Bio Tech hub? Ethanol plant? Erie Canal terminus and shops? That sounded like a growing, happening, leading edge sort of place. Described like I hear Boston, or Philadelphia, or Boulder described. Cool places have biomedical hubs. I was coming from Vegas – casinos make everyone richer. And if The Economist said it, it must be true.

Two and half years after that article, how foolish do we look? I was recently at lunch with Chris Smith, and he asked if I was still happy that I moved back. I answered him the way I usually answer that question: moving back to Buffalo feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Like I’m finally where I “should” be. But the optimism I felt then, reading the article, and the optimism I felt when looking for houses in March 2007, and the enthusiasm I felt going to Buffalo Homecoming in July 2007 . . .  has waned a bit. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

Its been a disappointing 2 years, hasn’t it, Buffalo? Ignoring the national economic meltdown, Buffalo has not lived up to our self-provided hype from earlier in the decade. In the last two years, here is the building we’ve built:

Avant

Its a very nice building. But can you think of others? Oh, we knocked this one down:

Aud Demo

And we started on this one (which doesn’t look much like the artist’s renderings, unfortunately):

Fed Court

But its more than buildings. Byron Brown has gone from fresh hopeful face to kick-back hack. Casino plans were fought and stalled. That Ethanol plant never did get built, did it. The Sabres have tanked. The Bills still suck. The Peace Bridge is no further along. Bashar Issa is a boob, at best, and a scam artist, at worst. Lots of plans have been put on the shelf.

So when do I “pass judgment,” on whether this rehabitation plan was a good idea? Despite the litany on failed projects, slowed projects, and lack of progress (small “P”) that I’ve barely touched on, I have hope.

Here is my prediction: the next two years will be much better than the last two.

What’s my proof? There are a list of projects with far surer money, with far sounder plans, that are set to be completed or implemented by July 2011. And even though its Buffalo, I think they may happen. By July 2011, UB and Kaleida will have built a Global Vascular Institute and a variety of Downtown Campus buildings down in the medical corridor. The size and scope of that campus, related to UB 2020, will be amazing. The Richardson Complex, which I believe is a transformative project for that part of the city, will be done with significant pieces of restoration and a new visitor hub will be open. Canalside and Bass Pro should be open by 2011, and construction is really starting to happen. Bass Pro isn’t even the most important part of that project, but being able to test a new kayak on the water directly will be nice. 2010 will be a great sports year, with the NCAA Basketball first round coming back, the Empire State Games coming through, and the World Junior Hockey Tournament at the end of the year. And if the economy improves, a host of stalled projects, like the Gates Circle condos, will finally get off the ground.

In Buffalo, to paraphrase my grandfather, anticipation is greater than realization. But I have hope. The day I moved back, that July 4th, the diocese of Buffalo announced the East Side round of church closings. My family’s home church, of which I am the fifth generation, was on the list. That church is still open today – its closing date has come and gone. That’s hope.

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