Tag Archives: Richard Florida

Have We Yet Gained the Brains?

20 Jan

Richard Florida, observer of cities, has a new piece in The Atlantic noting the changing migration patterns of the young and educated. For those not familiar with his work, Florida is a business professor and institute director at the University of Toronto, a former Buffalonian, and promoter of various Creative Class theories which, in short, state that if your city can attract enough educated, diverse, talented, gay and young people, you’re going to turn out okay. Florida lists wooing the Creative Class as the number one job of cities, and so tracks what works and what doesn’t.

The latest info (from a Brookings Institution report) says Buffalo, and the rest of the Rust Belt, is doing a lot better than it has in the recent past. Buffalo has cut its young/educated loss rate in the last four years from 0.85% to 0.45%. That’s better than Cleveland and New York, and roughly equal to Los Angeles and Chicago. And several Rust Belt cities – Pittsburgh, Columbus, Baltimore –  have even seen their losses turn into gains. What accounts for this change?

Florida attributes it to lower migration overall (due to the Great Recession), a transformation in Rust Belt cities of manufacturing economies to knowledge based economies, and efforts of cities generally to be more inviting to young people. But does this theory hold water for Buffalo?

Chris Smith regularly reports on Buffalo’s positive economic data, and how our metro has faired well in the Great Recession. Most Buffalonians also know the great statistics about relative cost of living and low commute times. Buffalo Rising readers may also note the influx of converted loft-residences downtown as signs that the city is not just attractive to young people, but successfully courting them. I remain suspicious.

The Federal Reserve’s Buffalo office report on the matter says we do not suffer from an overly large brain drain, but an insufficient brain gain. In every metro, even booming places like Austin and (until recently) Charlotte, some young people leave. In this regard, Buffalo is like everywhere else – it sends its young off to seek greener pastures. But unlike other cities, we don’t do well attracting the nation’s youth, and experience a minimal brain gain. Unfortunately, this report contains no data to show otherwise. To cut our loss rate in half, we could simply have lost fewer brains, and gained no more.

Anecdotal evidence alone says Buffalo is still not doing well in providing that ultimate carrot to youth: quality jobs. Buffalo has far more intellectual capital than monetary, and this imbalance shows itself in a surge of citizen’s groups, demands for open mic nights for development projects, ironic winter festivals and the Buffalo Expat Network. In cities with the opposite problem, everyone is too busy working and making money to care about much of anything. Young people that do find jobs here are often under-employed, as greying middle managers are stuck in mid-salary positions with mid-salary responsibilities. With a plethora of back office work and few leadership positions available, the Buffalo corporate ladder looks more like a step-stool with not many places to go. As a friend of mine, a University of Chicago trained economist who worked for Citi in Amherst, once said: “If the work is important, it’s not being done here.” He has since moved on himself.

A shortage of quality jobs leads to nepotism and connections completely overwhelming qualifications – if you are an outsider, a recent transplant, and not “from here,” or from the “old neighborhood” in some places still, you have little chance of even hearing about jobs, much less securing them. The City of Good Neighbors culture is friendly to its own and suspicious of others coming to take the few remaining scraps.

This culture changes when jobs are readily available, and enough new blood is regularly arriving to soften old perceptions or break down networks built from grade school. Until Buffalo moves from the “loss” to the “gain” column in these demographics reports, I will be unconvinced we have truly turned a corner. Like I have said before, the solution to many of our problems is Growth.

The Paradox of Austin

7 Apr

I made the mistake of flying into Austin, Texas the day before the South By South West (SXSW, or just South By, for those in the know) festival kicked off. On a normal day, the plane into Austin has two or three guitars stashed in an overhead bin. This day, every available nook and cranny was filled with instruments. The airport breezeway, baggage claim, and rental car pick up were similarly stuffed, with limp haired musicians and their tools of the trade. As I made my way north on I-35, ever so slowly in the regular bumper-to-bumper traffic, I was quietly thankful that I was leaving the self-imposed and never ending congestion of the “best” (read: progressive, fastest growing, most tolerant, Floridian if you will) city in Texas.

In Buffalo’s quest to regain its greatness, I have come to the conclusion that reputation and brand are more important than reality. Young, beautiful, well-educated people with disposable income follow reputation more than cold, statistical, monetary reality, despite the pleas of libertarians to the contrary. This does not mean such individuals do not make sound economic decisions; rather, I point to the nuance of this choice, that life is about more than taxes, and everyone decides for themselves what they are seeking from a hometown. Some (like corporations with a bottom line profit motive) do want the lowest taxes. Some want good weather. Some want family and history. Some want argument and the opportunity to make their community better. And if you want to live in a hip fun town but still be in Texas, you move to Austin.

Hopefully when you move to Austin, you find what you are looking for . . . because I never fully do on my visits. Is there a better example of reputation not meeting reality? I would say Austin’s national brand is a mix of music, youthful enthusiasm, progressive urban planning and politics, good jobs, and fun, mixed in a sauce of Texas sunshine and free-wheeling libertarian low taxes.

This reputation attracts thousands of people a year, making Austin the fastest growing metro in Texas, and (as a direct result of that fact) the best place for young adults to start a business in the country. But how does that reputation match with reality on the ground? Consider a few facts and comparisons:

– Austin’s fun music orientated reputation is based upon a PBS teevee show, a two week music festival, and six blocks of bars on Sixth Street. Six blocks. Hell, our bar district around Chippewa is almost six blocks if you are willing to walk up Franklin. Thursday in the Square and Rock the Harbor are not SX, and Chippewa is not Sixth Street. But that isn’t much infrastructure on Austin’s part for a national reputation. Imagine if we had a competent CVB that marketed Buffalo as the Festival Capital of America: the two previously mentioned events, plus the second largest Taste event in country, Allentown, Elmwood Arts, Chicken Wing Fest, Powder Keg, Dyngus Day, Citybration, a variety of ethnic festivals, just to get started.  

– Austin is a motorist’s dream, and a nightmare of progressive urban planning. Is there a sidewalk in all of Texas? Even I can tell the horrors of Texas planning: major highways all require a maze of one-way frontage roads, taking 6 line highways and turning them into 12 lane behemoths. Imagine Route 5 and Fuhrmann Boulevard, and extrapolate it to the 90, 190, 290 and 33. Obviously bad planning does not impede all growth.

These highways dominate the city along its spine, north to south. In the towns of Round Rock and Georgetown, sprawltopian suburbs that stretch Austin to nearly 50 miles long, there are obviously codes that state all commercial buildings must be clad in stone, like this beauty named “Old Town Square”:

No, that is not a Mexican-American War era barracks converted into chic loft apartments. Its a new build office park full of dentist offices and realty firms. You have to see it on Google maps to get the full effect of its position on I-35:

Faux stone, but real money – Austin in a nutshell. This treatment seeks to impersonate the actual old stone buildings from the nineteen century that still linger on Main Street in small central Texas towns. Note: Austin, Round Rock, and Georgetown are not these towns. I know architectural standards are seen nationally as an important tool to building pleasing urban areas. But merely covering a Walmart on a 12 lane highway with fake rock veneer doesn’t do much for me.

Austin is trying to get better, and just opened (while I was there) its first passenger light rail on the main cargo line that runs through town. Verdict and ridership from the first weekend? More bikers used the service than expected (39 – more than expected!) and 2900, on average, used the trains each day of the first week. Buffalo’s much maligned, and much shorter system, handles 23,000 passengers a day. If Buffalo leads anywhere on light rail coverage, new or not, there is a problem.

– Let’s once and for all debunk the myth of low tax states having blooming non-governmental industry, or an economy based more on the private sector. Buffalo is often criticized for having such a large proportion of its jobs be government ones. Fair enough. But is this what’s holding us back? Shouldn’t Austin, the poster child for fast private growth, beat our pants off? Hate to break the news but Austin’s economy is based on government jobs.

Austin has 22 entities that employ 2000 people or more. Of those 22, nine are government agencies (local, state, federal and school districts), two are non-profit health care conglomerates, three are higher education (Eds & Meds), and only eight are private companies.

How does Buffalo do? Checking the last Book of Lists, we have 27 entities that employ 2000 or more. Of those 27, six are government agencies, eight are healthcare, one is higher ed, and twelve are private companies. Looks about the same. Austin’s big private employers? Dell, IBM and AT&T. Buffalo’s? HSBC, M&T Bank, supermarkets, Moog and Dresser-Rand. They focus on technology, we focus on banking and manufacturing. But the percentage of the employment based on government largesse is strikingly similar. Total government spending, as a percentage of the economy, was 36% in 2006, and has grown since. If 40% of Buffalo’s economy isn’t government, that just means we don’t have our fair share. 

– To address taxes, I have to return to the highways. Rus Thompson would have an apoplectic fit if he had to drive on Austin’s highway system, and the BRO arm-chair planning crew may have a collective heart attack to see the Skyway-sized interchanges every couple miles. The man-made edifices that dominate the skyline by far belong to the ten lane highway interchanges, that rise ten or twenty stories, in the suburbs and downtown. Driving them can be disorientating (if you look down) as it feels like you are on a roller coaster. “They dream big here,” noted a friend of mine in the car. How to pay for all these many miles of brand new concrete? Tolls:

Since free I-35 is a parking lot at all hours of day and night (the high cost of free roads), driving the toll roads becomes a necessity at some point, especially going east-west. And not cheap tolls either – $0.75 every mile or two, and more if you get lost and have to loop around a couple times like me (you can go I35 North from TX 45, but not South? WTF?). Add in the 8.25% sales tax rate, and it starts to look annoyingly familiar.

– Our very own USRT guys would be proud of me – I was exploring the toll roads because I was headed to the Cedar Park Center to see the AHL Texas Stars play the San Antonio Rampage. The quality of the sports fan is a biased factor I use in judging a city. And here is perhaps where I found Austin’s greatest paradox of all: real hockey, in a real arena, with real hockey fans, in a fake suburb in central Texas.

The arena is in Cedar Park, in the equivalent (geographically and land use wise) of Hamburg’s Erie County Fairgrounds. The Texas Stars, obviously the farm team of Dallas, is in its first year as member of the now 29 team AHL. I wore my retro Sabres shirt to the game, just so everyone knew that I knew that Brett Hull’s foot was obviously in the crease. Interspersed in the crowd of Dallas and Texas jerseys were a smattering of Fliers and Rangers fans – perhaps the transplants explain my pleasant surprise later. I was expecting bad hockey, a bad atmosphere, and bad fans, like I used to get with the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL, who play at the Orleans Casino. Instead, I got a full house (announced crowd of over 6000), $2 beer and $1 hot dog night, a real scoreboard, and real fans who were loud. Sure, corner glass tickets were still available a couple days out. And yes, the guy behind me (acting as the “real” hockey fan) was explaining to his buddy how icing the puck is a great way to get rest to your players if they have been on the ice a while (if I have to explain that rule to you, never mind). But when the Stars scored in OT to win 4-3, the entire arena (your humble author included) stood straight up and screamed. You could almost forget you were in Texas.


16 Jun

As Richard Florida argues, it’s an idea whose time has come.

…mega-regions have replaced the nation-state as the economic drivers of the global economy. These are places like Bos-Wash (the Boston-New York-Washington corridor), Chi-Pitts (running from Chicago through Detroit and Cleveland and over to Pittsburgh), Nor-Cal (around San Francisco and the Silicon Valley), Cascadia (which stretches from Portland through Seattle and Vancouver), Europe’s Am-Burs-Twerp (from Amsterdam to Brussels and Antwerp), Lon-Leed-Chester (around London) and Asia’s greater Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai.

Clunky sounding or not, the 10 largest mega-regions account for 43 percent of the planet’s economic activity and more than half of its patented innovations and star scientists. They generate all those pioneering breakthroughs while housing only 6.5 percent of the planet’s population. And to take an even broader overhead view, the top 40 mega-regions produce 66 percent of the world’s economic activity and more than 80 percent of its patented innovations and most-cited scientists, still while being home to just 18 percent of the world’s population.

Tor-Buff-Chester is one of the world’s very biggest mega-regions, bigger than the San Francisco-Silicon Valley megaregion, Greater Paris, Hong Kong and Shanghai, and more than twice the size of Cascadia in the Pacific Northwest. Its economic might is equivalent to more than half of all of Canada’s. If it were its own country, it would number among the 16 biggest in the world, with economic output bigger than that of Sweden, the Netherlands or Australia.

Being able to run a great think tank — the Martin Rotman Prosperity Institute — in this great mega-region is what moved me back to it. I know both Buffalo and Toronto pretty well. During my time in Buffalo, I endured some large snowstorms, lived in the terrific Elmwood neighborhood, ate my share of real chicken wings and beef on weck and took in as many Bills and Sabres games as I could.

At that time, Buffalonians always would remind me of how, during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, it was Buffalo with its manufacturing muscle and exciting downtown that was the more energetic, stronger city while Toronto rolled up the sidewalks at 10 p. m.

Times change, and these days Toronto has become the engine of the mega-region. Greater Toronto is growing at a fantastic clip, adding thousands of immigrants and 115,000 people a year. But it’s also clear that Buffalo’s economic hemorrhaging has stabilized. Despite shedding 17 percent of its manufacturing jobs between 2001 and 2005, the region’s manufacturing sector actually expanded its output by 3.5 percent, according to a study by UB’s Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth. The same report shows an increase in creative-class jobs in information technology, financial and business services, which I define as ones where people use their minds to create economic value.

Not only is Toronto growing, it isn’t resting on its laurels. One can whine all day about Canada’s socialism, cleanliness, friendliness, and aggressive drivers, but does Buffalo have an agenda for prosperity? Does Rochester? Or are we on the US side of this mega-region satisified instead to harken back to the good ol’ days of Xerox and Kodak; of GM and Bethlehem Steel?

Compare Toronto’s “doing business” section on its website to Buffalo’s, which recently got a re-vamp that actually added a “businesses” section.

The second section of Toronto’s site is its “agenda for prosperity.” In Buffalo, it’s “incentives“.

They plan for growth. We beg for stasis.

In any event, setting aside the completely different mindsets when it comes to growth and prosperity, Buffalo needs to re-focus its gaze in many ways. We need to stop wringing our hands over past mistakes and instead develop a plan to learn from them and avoid making similar ones in the future. We need to – and I admit I’m the biggest culprit of this – stop whining about Albany this and Albany that, and start looking beyond Albany – start looking beyond downstate’s comparative prosperity and figure out a roadmap to Western New York’s return to prosperity.

Look forwards, not backwards.

We need to look to Toronto, look to Rochester, look to the Southern Tier, look to Erie, and realize that the megaregion has much to offer. The border is an impediment to this, but it is not insurmountable. There are small, symbolic ways to begin the mental integration of this mega-region right now. It’s things like when Skybus was going to call the Niagara Falls International Airport “Toronto/Niagara” on its website. It’s things like the Bills playing a few games in Toronto or the Sabres playing a few games in Rochester. There is so much potential within a 100 mile radius of the city of Buffalo, as the epicenter of the mega-region Florida talks about.

We just need to start tapping it, and develop a plan to integrate the region.