It is so smart in so many ways, I almost can’t believe I’m in Buffalo.
I mean that in a good way.
For decades, we were home to a legion of civic “leaders” who pushed mega-plans that did us, or would’ve done us, more harm than good. From a mega-convention center that would’ve obliterated a chunk of downtown, to a big-box retailer mis-targeted for the city’s waterfront, seemingly every big, dumb-growth idea came with a business and political thumbs-up.
These days, those in power talk instead about making the most of what we have. They say we can solve our own problems, instead of seeking salvation from outsiders. Thursday’s gubernatorial announcement that two California-based, clean-energy companies are coming to a Buffalo brownfield strikes me as the latest blast of civic smart-think. The state will spend $225 million to build Soraa and Silevo a high-tech home called Riverbend on the old Republic Steel site. The companies will bring at least 850 jobs, with the prospect of more work and more companies to come.
Granted, it’s a shadow of the 20,000-plus steel workers who once honeycombed the industrial waterfront. But it’s another step on our dirty-to-clean-economic odyssey. Call it the Revenge of the Rust Belt. We lost countless jobs over the years to low-tax Southern states, new technology and cheap Third World labor.
Now we bask in reverse-job migration, “stealing” a couple of California companies and snatching solar-panel work from China.
The brownfields re-use is another nail in the “silver bullet” coffin. It is anti-sprawl, future-thinking and land-reclaiming. It takes advantage of the site’s rail/road/water access. It builds a high-tech, business-luring campus, instead of flinging tax dollars at a company that leaves us with nothing if it leaves. It spends state tax dollars on a local project.
Beyond that, it brings jobs to Buffalo, the regional core. Geico was a nice addition – but its suburban office park is a rail/bus trek for car-free city workers.
Riverbend’s clean-energy campus brings work closer to those who most need it. A consideration that once was barely a high-level afterthought is now front-burner.
“We built 600 miles of new roads, while we lost population,” Howard Zemsky, the Buffalo businessman who is Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s regional point man, lamented of our half-century of dumb-growth. “How many young people ever said to themselves, ‘I want to move to the place that has the most sprawl?’ ”
Zemsky represents the new breed of New Buffalo leader. He is a welcome antidote to the since-departed Andrew Rudnick, the business chieftain who seemingly never saw a mega-project he didn’t like. Zemsky, conversely, is progressive, preservation-minded and grassroots-connected. Although his ilk still is rare in Buffalo’s board rooms, it seems others are following the Cuomo-driven lead.
Among those declaring the death of the bad old days Thursday was Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, head of the business-gorilla Buffalo Niagara Partnership once led by Rudnick.
“We are no longer waiting for a single silver bullet,” Gallagher-Cohen assured. “We’re all working together, on projects big and small.”
I almost can’t believe I’m in Buffalo.