Tag Archives: buffalo homecoming

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:


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.

Buffalo Homecoming 2009

14 Jan

Planning began at Studio Arena Theater last night for Buffalo Homecoming 2009.  The event is entering its fourth year is being dubbed as a Citybration and also includes a new component, Niagara Homecoming, a joint endeavor between Buffalo By Choice and Niagara Rises.

From Marti Gorman, Director of Buffalo Homecoming:

Buffalo Homecoming is evolving and taking things to the next level. This year we are not only inviting new and expatriated Buffalonians to come to visit, we’re throwing a citywide party to welcome them. We’re calling this new initiative “Citybration.”

Citybration is a weekend to take stock in who we are as a City. It’s an opportunity to pause, reflect on where we’ve come from, report on progress to date, and to project our visions of the future.

It’s a chance to recognize the hundreds of Buffalonians, working as individuals and with dozens of advocacy groups, who have helped in some way to make our city better.

It’s a moment to take fullest advantage of all of our natural and cultural treasures. It’s a time to boast.

Buffalo’s day in the sun is long overdue. It’s high time to shout to the world what an amazing place Buffalo is to live, work, play and invest.

And it’s a weekend to do one of the things that Buffalonians do best. Throw a party.  Included within the four-day celebration will be a Career Fair, the Tim Russert Buffalo Ambassador Awards luncheon, cultural open houses, tours, a parade, a conference/symposium, and a city full of stores, restaurants, organizations and neighborhoods that have found fun and innovative ways to participate. And the fun will extend across the Buffalo Niagara region with the launch of Niagara Homecoming and entire set of parallel, complementary events!

For more information on events or volunteer opportunities, log onto http://buffalohomecoming.com

Branding Buffalo

24 Sep

It looks like the self imposed exile of our development and architecture blogger, Mark Byrnes at All Things Buffalo, has come to an end.

Mark is what  we in the Buffalo Homecoming industry like to call our “target demographic”.  He’s a college kid with a bright future and that special sort of youthful optimism and idealism that are the roots of a growing city.

We want critical thinkers like him to stay and contribute to our region after they are done with college, but how do we as a region incent him to do so?  What is the value proposition for a 22 year old kid with tremendous potential to stay in Buffalo?  Especially when he can find work in just about any other city in America?

Essentially, what is our brand?

For the purposes of the discussion, we will define brand as follows:

  • A collection of ideas that provides a strategic clarity for what Buffalo and Western New York will represent in the 21st century

As we sit here today, what is our brand?  How do we perceive ourselves and how do those familiar with us perceive us?

I would argue that our current national brand is that of a snowy, dying, heavily unionized, rust belt town that is still reeling from the death of our local manufacturing base.  Marketing organizations like the Buffalo CVB, Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, Buffalo Homecoming and Buffalo Rising have attempted to demonstrate that we are more than that confining description through urban and regional boosterism.  They have done so (with varying degrees of minimal success) by marketing the things that we currently love about our region; low cost of living, minimal traffic, arts destination, parks, etc.

The issue with our tactics is that all of these value points can be discounted by a skeptical customer.  Low housing prices?  Must be low demand.  Short commutes?  Because no one lives there.  Arts and parks?  Yeah Memphis has ’em too.

In the end, these are things that we like and that we think are important because we already live here and we have demonstrated that we value them through our decision to stay.  In other words, those marketing points don’t demonstrate a value proposition to someone who is considering a move here as those things can also be found elsewhere.  We also have a fantastic ability to constantly look backwards in this town and while its important to preserve our history, I think we do it to distraction.

So, I propose that we start thinking about our city like a product that needs a branding and marketing campaign.  Not as a place we wish to tell people we love.  There is a fine difference between those two ideas.

We should brand Buffalo as the city we want it to be; not the city we were, or the city we think we are.  Once we have strategically decided on what it is that Buffalo is to become, we go about making it so.  This is something that we are beginning to do at Buffalo Homecoming and I’d like to start crowdsourcing a place branding campaign.

According to CEO’s for Cities:

Developing a brand strategy for a community should not be the task of a single organization. Including a variety of stakeholders assures that multiple perspectives and issues are weighed and makes buy-in and execution less complicated. (On the other hand, a city is unlikely to get a meaningful effort by staging public contests for taglines and ads, as many communities have done. More often, these turn disastrous.)

What are your thoughts?

Buffalo In New York Magazine

24 Aug

As part of our media outreach efforts during Buffalo Homecoming this year, one of our Steering Committee members reached out to New York Magazine and invited them to join us for the annual celebration of our fair city.

We welcomed the opportunity to have a writer from a major publication visit and share his experiences with  a national readership.  Although, I was a bit apprehensive that we dispatched Newell Nussbaumer from Buffalo Rising to escort him during his stay. Newell is a friend of mine, but he is a bit of a hipster doofus who can seem a bit too eager to please outsiders.  In order to tone down the Kool-Aid effect that Newell represents, we also matched the writer up with people who have a more realistic view of Buffalo…as it is and what it can be.  What came of this was one of the most balanced articles about Buffalo that I have read in a national publication.

It dealt with the decision to move to a place like Buffalo from a place like New York City without it seeming like an admission of failure. I’m familiar with the agony of leaving a big city to move back home and all of the conflicting emotions that come with it.  I still struggle with my decision to move here and I think many of us who made the leap understand the feeling.

Some people will read this as a story of defeat. They will look at Herbeck and Cloyd and think, They came; they couldn’t cut it; good riddance. That’s also a familiar New York narrative, one that’s especially comforting to those of us who stay and stick it out. Because, sure, stained glass and spare bedrooms are nice and all, but no one moves to New York because they think they’re going to get a great bargain on an apartment. You move here because you want to live in New York City.

But I am here to tell you that this is not a story of defeat. Rather, it’s a story about choices.

It spoke of our challenges and our history.

In 1901, Buffalo was the eighth largest city in America, a booming industrial metropolis, and the site of the World’s Fair. By 2008, thanks to white flight and industrial decay, its population had dropped by half, from a mid-century high of 580,000 to about 270,000—fewer people, in fact, than lived there in 1901. As a result, large tracts of Buffalo are essentially abandoned, turned into “urban prairie,” full of boarded-up buildings and weedy vacant lots. The silver lining of this exodus is that you can drive anywhere in Buffalo in ten minutes or less, a fact that was repeated to me often by local boosters, including the mayor, which always struck me as odd—like claiming the best thing about living in a ghost town is that there’s never a line at the movie theater. (Geek Notes:  AMEN Brother!  Can we drop this ridiculous talking point?!?)

It spoke about the perpetual optimism of some our citizens.

And yet, one quality common to everyone I meet in Buffalo is that they see opportunity everywhere. Where you see a boarded-up building, they see a future arts co-op. They use the phrases blank canvas or blank slate a lot.

As well as the realities that people like Aaron Bartley deal with each and every day.

On my last day, Horowitz and Bartley take me on a tour of one of the most depressed parts of the city. It seems a strange way to end my visit, but fitting as well, as these neighborhoods, with their rows of empty houses each available for $1, represent exactly the kind of possibilities that drew the two of them back.

This article did a nice job summing up the experience of someone who moves here from somewhere else.  Especially if you moved here from a place like San Francisco, New York City, or like me, Chicago.

I miss many things about Chicago…mainly, I miss the bigness of it all.  I miss that my client list in Chicago included the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Chicago Board of Trade, Aon Insurance, Allstate, ABN AMRO Bank, and dozens of other world class companies.  I miss the demands of working in a big city and the hustle needed to keep up.  Hell, I also miss the improv theaters, Cubs games on a Wednesday when I should be at the office, world class dance and theater, and well, you get the point.

I moved home to take a breath for a few years, save some money, and eventually head back into the big city battle.  Instead, I stayed, bought a house, had a few kids and settled down.  I’m an accidental Buffalo repatriate.  Will I stay forever?  I really don’t know and some days I want to run screaming for the hills, but for now, it just fits.

Over the next couple of days, I’d like to discuss our collective reasons for staying, our reasons for leaving, and ask you to help me define the “Buffalo Experience” and tell me why it is that you stay.

Maybe we can all learn something.

What Is Your Buffalo Story?

27 Feb

As we prepare for Buffalo Homecoming 2008 (nee Buffalo Old Home Week), I thought it would be interesting to perform a completely unscientific and anecdotal research project. Each year, I endeavor with my cohorts to celebrate Buffalo. In years past, I think we spent too much time accentuating what Buffalo was and what we hope it can be in the future. This year, it’s a celebration about what Buffalo is today.

Our event lineup will be a bit different and there will be a lot of details coming out in the next few weeks regarding organizational changes, sponsorships, registration, and a host of other issues.

Today, I want to ask you a question that someone posed to me when they discovered my involvement with Buffalo Homecoming, “Why did you leave Buffalo and why did you come back?”

I’ll get to my answers in a bit, but there are some other questions as part of this “research project” as well.

  • If you left, why did you leave?
  • Are you planning to move home or have you already taken the plunge? If so, why?
  • Did you move away and close the book on a future in Buffalo? If so, why?
  • If you are here and thinking of leaving, why?
  • If you are thinking of leaving, what has to change for you to consider staying?
  • If you never lived here before, why did you move here?

On to my Buffalo Story…
I left Buffalo in 1996 after college to make my own future. I joined the US Air Force and wandered the nation and the world. I wanted to live beyond the horizon of my youth and explore new experiences. I never really considered coming home, it was just a place to reference as where I was born.

After a decade of working and living around the country, we settled in Chicago and prepared to make it our permanent place of residence. After two years in Chicago, I was presented with an opportunity to transfer home. Why? Because my company couldn’t find anyone to do what I do locally and they knew I about the only guy in the company who would consider a move to Buffalo. We weighed our options, figured it was a unique opportunity and thought we would leave after a year or two if things didn’t work out.

In the ensuing three years, my love affair with Buffalo has been a cruel mistress. Filled with hope and excitement about pending change, getting involved with organizations that were making a difference in the community, discovering that the pace of progress would be incredibly slow, and finding myself troubled by the lack of career options in a shrinking city. It’s been a roller coaster ride and I often wonder if I made the right decision to move home. On the flip side, we bought our first home, grew closer to our families, had a child, and met dozens of people who I know will be friends for life. We’ve also grown despondent about the economic future of our hometown and often wonder if we’re “settling” by staying here. It’s conflicting and I think the schizophrenic nature of this blog over these three years has detailed that journey…

So, I stay in Buffalo because I am hopeful. It is a hope that is grounded in reality with a healthy dose of pessimism about those who would promise to deliver solutions to our troubled region. I am disdainful of those who believe we can simply wish our problems away or that the renaissance is upon us. After all, we’re a couple hundred miles drive from a renaissance and our car is burning oil and the engine is making a loud knocking sound…

I stay in Buffalo because I want my children to understand the context of their family and learn about their roots. I believe that children need proximity to their extended family and be grounded in an understanding that where you are from is a significant part of the person you become. I want to show them where I grew up and learn about life as I knew it. To see the humble beginnings of the Clan Geek and to learn many of the lessons that living in a town like this can teach.

I stay in Buffalo because I have a good job. If that job ever goes away, all of that which I described in the previous paragraphs will have to be pushed aside. See, there just isn’t a big market for senior level information system architects in this town and when openings do develop, well, the salaries are below market value and not sustainable for me. So, I’d have to scurry back to Chicago or Boston to make a living or start my own company in Buffalo which would require too much personal risk when one is supporting a young family.

So, I am a tenuous believer in Buffalo and stay while completely ignoring my potential for career growth. Am I crazy? Probably. But for some reason, this city is a part of who I am and it’s where I belong right now. I took the risk to move home and the rewards have so far outweighed the costs.

I’d love to hear your personal Buffalo story…