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Dead land is fertile for job growth

It sprouts from the earth like an unnatural growth. It is a sparsely windowed rectangle the size of three football fields, surrounded by scrub brush and marsh grass.

Some 135 people work inside the walls of HydroAir Components, making heating elements. Within a few years, another 175 jobs likely will come.

Two other such structures stand not far away, recently birthed from forgotten land. They are symbols of Buffalo's future, rising out of its past.

This is how the city struggles back to its knees. This is how a dumb-growth region gets smart. This is how jobs come to people who most need them, where they can get to them.

This is how a city of frozen boundaries expands. Contaminated land is cleaned for reuse. Vast, usable acreage comes back online.

The once-toxic remnants of long-gone industry are fertile ground for job growth. Rectangular structures stand above the weeds near the South Buffalo shoreline, hard by Route 5. Companies named Cobey and CertainTeed and HydroAir appeared the past two years, where Hanna Furnace once stood.

The city last week bought "Steelfields," adding to its reclaimed acreage. It is a near-vacant expanse of scrub brush, the size of an 18-hole golf course, on the old Republic Steel site. A discarded couch and dresser sit among its weeds. Near that spot soon will stand a mammoth distribution warehouse.

This is not a dream. Ground is broken. Companies have come to reclaim city land, bringing 400 jobs -- most paying upwards of $12 an hour. Three times as many jobs are coming, as commerce returns to the cleaned acreage.

"This was all forgotten," Peter Cammarata said. "Now it is reclaimed."

Rain falls on a recent afternoon. Cammarata, an affable bear of a man, stands with bookish, bespectacled David Stebbins. Meet the two-man Buffalo Urban Development Corp. Stretching out across Tifft Street is the Steelfields prairie.

Rail lines run through it. Roads stand beside it. A nearby canal connects to the lake. The rail/water/road links and central location that once made Buffalo a trade hub are serving it again. Back to the future.

"Those rail lines," Cammarata said, "run direct to New York and Chicago."

A rail spur stops at the door of CertainTeed. Inside, nearly 300 people -- about half of them from the city -- make vinyl decking. Its neighbor is Cobey Inc., which manufactures systems for the petrochemical industry. It consolidated its suburban plants on former South Buffalo wasteland, instead of leaving the state.

It is ridiculous that similar factories dot the outer suburbs -- far from folks who most need the jobs, distant from public transit. City workers without a car cannot get there. As Buffalo reclaims wasteland, sprawl slows and jobs return.

"This brings jobs back to the urban core," Stebbins said. "With the price of gas, with the cost of new infrastructure [in the outer suburbs], it makes sense to develop here."

HydroAir outgrew its Hamburg plant. It was headed to North Carolina, until lured to the old Hanna Furnace site. It opened in January and added 20 jobs since, setting out applications at the Cazenovia branch library. A planned 2009 expansion means another 175 jobs.

"We hired quite a few people from the [South Buffalo] neighborhood," said HydroAir's Kevin Cook. "With the public transportation, it's easier to attract workers here than in, say, Alden."

This is how the tide rises. This is how jobs return. This is how a city revives.

Once-toxic land is fertile ground. Watch the jobs grow.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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