Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the latest round of grants as part of his Regional Economic Development Council program this month, including nearly $61 million for Western New York.
By Allison Hibbs
For years Buffalo has been in dire economic straits. Decades of population and revenue loss due to deindustrialization, suburbanization and racial unrest reduced the once thriving metropolis to the second poorest city in the nation by 2007. Despite billions of federal and state dollars funneled into Western New York—via a hodgepodge of programs and incentives—the goal of revitalizing the area and helping its poorest inhabitants appeared to many an unmitigated waste of tax dollars. Proposed solutions to the problem were many: Let the city shrink to a manageable size; consolidate regional decision-making; invest more; invest differently; let the private sector do the investing. Meanwhile, the city’s population continued to shrink right along with its median income.
Today the remaining denizens of Buffalo and its surrounding areas are seeing things they have not seen since the first half of the 20th century: a whole lot of money and no small amount of hope. The recent influx of new business, construction projects and, most important, jobs in the region has many wondering whether this time Buffalo will truly overcome the legacy of its past.
Estimates put forth by Buffalo Business First and shared by the office of Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz have placed the total amount of incoming dollars at more than $8 billion for projects across Erie and Niagara counties, including money from private investments and public programs. With those investments comes the expectation of thousands of new jobs with higher income-earning potential.
While exact numbers vary, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s office estimate that at least $2.2 billion is being invested in the city, including for projects such as a high-tech green energy complex announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month. The state will invest $225 million through the governor’s Billion to Buffalo program, its largest outlay to date, to augment the $1.5 billion that will come from two California-based clean energy companies. The two companies, Soraa, which makes lighting systems, and Silevo, which produces high-efficiency solar panels, will anchor one of six planned buildings at the Buffalo High-Tech Manufacturing Innovation Hub at RiverBend (the former site of Republic Steel), potentially creating some 2,000 jobs.
Another state-supported enterprise, the University at Buffalo’s $375 million medical school building, is set to open its doors in the fall of 2016. Partially funded through NYS2020 legislation, the 540,000-square-foot building will include an indoor seven-story glass atrium, state-of-the-art laboratories, a center for clinical, surgical and robotic surgery training, and a built-in light rail station. The new structure is expected to attract, train and retain world-class physicians and scientists.
The Cuomo administration has not stood alone in its financial display of faith in this long-doubted region. Private investment has played a huge role in the burgeoning rebirth of Buffalo, including from the governor’s erstwhile adversary Carl Paladino. Construction on Ellicott Development’s $75 million “The Carlo” (named for Paladino’s grandfather), a complex that will include a hotel, in addition to residential and commercial space, is expected to begin at the Erie Basin Marina in 2014. Additional property investments by Paladino’s corporation since the begin-ning of the year are valued at approximately $10 million.
Other projects are moving forward as well. In April the owner of the Buffalo Sabres hockey team, Terry Pegula, broke ground on his $172 million Harbor Center on the Webster Block, a 1.7-acre city-owned site located across from the First Niagara Center, where the Sabres play. The Harbor Center is expected to have a restaurant, two ice rinks and parking open to the public by September 2014, in time for hockey season. A 200-room hotel will open in 2015. In all, the facility promises to create 350 long-term jobs.
Another project, the recently completed Conventus Building at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, a $100 million structure housing clinical, practical and medical research space, is expected to create more than 100 new jobs. Next summer the new $46 million Catholic Health Systems headquarters will be completed. The following fall the $40 million Clinical Sciences Center at Roswell Park Cancer Institute will be finished, and the new $42 million John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital is expected to open early 2016.
Additional renovation projects are either complete or underway to add hotel and commercial space at the Donovan State Office Building, now called One Canalside ($30 million), the Tishman Building ($40 million), the Hotel at Lafay-ette ($42 million), the Curtiss Building ($18 million) and the Richardson Olmsted Complex ($56 million).
Among other notable expenditures are several that are intended to beautify the city and its surrounding areas: $88 million for a three-phase renovation process turning the former Memorial Auditorium site into a tourist-friendly attraction featuring replica canals (an homage to the economic and cultural history of the area), shopping, an ice rink and a children’s museum; $15 million for Buffalo Riverfront Park; and $25 million for the renovation and upgrade of Niagara Falls State Park facilities.
Taken together, these investments represent a new way of thinking about Western New York and the implementa-tion of solutions to decades of economic decline. Turning away from the industrial heyday of the city’s past, the governor’s Regional Economic Development Council is emphasizing investing in other area strengths, which in Western New York includes education, energy, advanced manufacturing, and the health and life sciences. Earlier this month Western New York won $60.8 million in the latest round of the governor’s REDC program, including $1 million for a computing and data analytics center at SUNY Buffalo.
“These projects dovetail with the proposals of the Regional Economic Development Council and my economic agenda, Initiatives for a Smart Economy,” Poloncarz told City & State. “As these investments mature and produce fruit, we anticipate more interest and job-creating potential in the future from other businesses who have seen the benefits of conducting business in Erie County.”