Buffalo, Steady As She Goes

23 Nov

Each quarter, I like to post the latest Metro Monitor Report to check on the relative health of the WNY economy and take a look at where we stand as compared to our regional and national peers.

The Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution publishes a quarterly document titled The MetroMonitor.

The MetroMonitor is a quarterly, interactive barometer of the health of America’s 100 largest metropolitan economies. It examines trends in metropolitan-level employment, output, and housing conditions to look “beneath the hood” of national economic statistics to portray the diverse metropolitan trajectories of recession and recovery across the country.

Essentially, this report serves as a planning resource and a measurement tool for metropolitan progress.  While the Brookings Institution is the home of the dreaded “third way Democrats”, their data collection and research on metropolitan areas is valuable in innumerable ways.

Surprisingly, Buffalo rates as the 5th strongest performing metropolitan region in America.  Yes, you read that right.

The data can be interpreted to demonstrate that since Buffalo did not participate in the “boom” of the last twenty years, we didn’t really have a bubble to burst.  Or it can be interpreted to show that other cities have fallen so far that we now have an opportunity to differentiate ourselves from Southern boomtowns and initiate a slow growth cycle.  I think it’s a mix of the two.  Our economy is resetting itself and the self-perpetuating high growth sprawl policies of the south and west are no longer proving to be sustainable strategies for economic development.

You can read the full report here and you can read a more focused report on the Great Lakes region here.

Here are some infographics built from the data in the report:

This first graphic demonstrates data based on four factors: “employment change from peak; unemployment rate change from one year ago; gross metropolitan product change from peak; and housing price index change from one year ago.”

The graphic below displays changes in employment for each of the 100 largest metro areas from: (a) the metro area’s peak employment quarter to the most recent quarter, measuring the extent to which employment has recovered from the recession’s full impact; and (b) the previous quarter to the most recent quarter, measuring whether employment is moving toward recovery.

The graphic below displays, for the 100 largest metro areas, the: (a) percentage of the labor force that is currently unemployed (not seasonally adjusted) in the last month of the most recent quarter; (b) change in the unemployment rate from the same month three years ago; and (c) change in the unemployment rate from the same month in the previous year (the same month is used in change calculations to account for seasonality):

This final chart shows the change in Gross Metropolitan Product (GMP)–the total value of goods and services produced from each metro area’s peak GMP quarter to the most recent quarter, measuring the extent to which output has recovered from the recession’s full impact.

Some addtional data drawn from the report:

  • House prices fell in the second quarter in all but six metropolitan areas, with Buffalo leading the nation in sustainable home prices.
  • Only 19 metropolitan areas had faster output growth in the second quarter of 2010 than in the first quarter. Buffalo was third fastest growth market.
  • We’re the market in the country with the fewest percentage of foreclosed homes.

I think the trend lines in this document are telling and can serve as a precursor to a larger discussion about our regional strategic priorities and how we can best position Buffalo for the coming new economy.  We see that the bust is still hitting Florida, California, and the entire Southeast and Southwest especially hard.  We see that many areas around the Great Lakes and Midwest are relatively stable.  Is our predictability and stability an asset?

If we had a big picture Mayor or County Executive, we might be chewing on the data and building a strategy focused on how to best position ourselves for growth.  Unfortunately, we’re (as usual) mired in petty political battles and barking at who gets to eat the last crumbs on the table.

If we had a proactive business community or regional development authority, we might be putting together a list of priorities to capitalize on weakness in other regions of the country rather than simply seeking public funding for pet projects.

Since none of the above is likely to happen due to our habit of (generally) electing mouthbreathers and half-wits to public office, how do we capitalize on general national economic weakness and make sure that we begin a period of slow growth rather than continue our decades long state of stasis/decline?  When do we stop focusing on the minimal out-migration of knowledge from our regional economy and instead focus on in-migration of highly educated people?  We’ve held steady through the past two recessions fairly well. Rather than just surviving, how do we capitalize?

If I were Mayor, I would start by identifying our differentiators from the regions glowing in red and marketing ourselves to the people and businesses of those regions.  I’d continue to align our public policy, planning documents and zoning code to capitalize on the opportunities presenting themselves and assemble a team of tacticians who can best build a better future for Buffalo.  I’d lean on the local University talent to help build a blueprint for success with measurable goals over five years.

After all, complex problems are not always complicated.


If we prioritize, identify action items, separate them from eventualities and focus on attainable, measureable, incremental goals, we can start inching towards competence.

Does this data tell you anything interesting?  How do you see it as presented?

2 Responses to “Buffalo, Steady As She Goes”

  1. Brian Castner November 23, 2010 at 9:15 am #

    The big question from the Great Recession is: When the jobs come back, where will they go to? I think we’ve been asking that for a little while now, and I’m not sure that the answer is the Midwest and Great Lakes just because we’re stronger right now in comparison. I’ve tried to talk in a couple columns about how the young movers of the Great Rest see Buffalo, and how do we attract them. Its an answer beyond taxes, or funding for culturals, which is what the current conversation has devolved into. I think our “Born and Bred” insulated culture, often a strength, is a hindrence there.

    Anyone that has visited Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, outside of Berlin and Paris, has to appreciate the slow growth model. There are worse things than growing by 2% every year for 50 years. If Buffalo could do that, to differentiate itself, we’d have something. The hole in your interpretation of the data, though, is Texas. Nowhere is more unsustainably sprawly than Texas. To answer my own question, about where the people and jobs go from the Great Recession, I think the answer is Texas. How does that fit the data? And our plan?

  2. Leo Wilson November 24, 2010 at 4:37 pm #

    I see an awful lot of the same thing you do in this article, Chris. I lean more towards the “we never boomed and didn’t bust” than you do, but the rest of it looks pretty solid. I agree wholeheartedly that someone who understands competition and measures and reports ROI honestly is needed, and share your skepticism about that likelihood. I have to ask, though… will the national economy be good enough that being strong in it will mean better living for citizens, or will it give us the guadiest house on skid row? There is alot more wrong with the economy than electing half-witted mouth breathers as local representatives.

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