Sean Kirst's open letter to Jeff Bezos: Take a look at Buffalo's Central Terminal - The Buffalo News

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Sean Kirst's open letter to Jeff Bezos: Take a look at Buffalo's Central Terminal

An open letter to Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon:

Dear Jeff,

This has to be one busy Monday morning. In Buffalo, as in just about every city of any size in North America, we've been a little preoccupied with Amazon's announcement about seeking the right place to build a second headquarters. Projections involve such mind-bending numbers as a $5 billion investment and up to 50,000 jobs.

From the starting point — in a community well-versed in the hazards of pursuing silver bullets — we understand: The chances are slim. As Jonathan Epstein and Tom Precious reported last week, some of your conditions might limit the project to a handful of major American cities. Even so, civic leaders and development officials are hustling to make a proposal.

If nothing else, God bless the effort. They'll undoubtedly emphasize the region's economic comeback, its proximity to major markets on both sides of the Canadian borders, its access to cheap power and fresh water, a passionate workforce, its great universities, the four distinct and often beautiful seasons.

All true enough. Yet many of those attributes could also be a selling point for Cleveland, or any large city not far from the Great Lakes.

The Buffalo skyline bathed in sunlight. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

I'd like to think Buffalo's real chance lies in a more intimate narrative that you won't quite find anywhere else, a narrative that explains the ferocious loyalty natives carry for this city and one that fits exactly with your resume. Long ago, you took the entire notion of everyday buying and selling — the fundamental way people shop for their goods — and reshaped it, transformed it, for the needs of a different age.

More recently, you bought the Washington Post when that paper seemed to be on the slide. You've given it a new digital persona. Its deep history is now meshed with a fresh voice. In both instances, your success was not the easy or predictable result. You ignored skeptics and challenged entrenched assumptions.

Imagine doing the same thing with an entire American city.

Seriously. That is the opportunity we bring to the table. In Buffalo, you have a chance for a kind of pulsing legacy — a living urban template, with international application — that you'll find in few other communities. Sure, go to Toronto, or Atlanta, or South Florida, and they'll greet you with joy, but you'll simply be a piece of an already expansive fabric. Essentially, you'll be adding economic muscle onto muscle, wealth onto wealth.

In this community, the allure lies in the kind of bones on which you'd build.

Buffalo among many suitors eyeing a demanding courtship with Amazon

For more than a century, Buffalo was a burning hub of American prowess. The Erie Canal was the greatest artery of commerce and technology of its time. Its western terminus was here. This was a railroad center, a shipping capital, a magnet for labor and raw materials and a forge of ingenuity and innovation.

Buffalo, for decades, was among a handful of the nation's largest cities. Investment triggered genius. Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, H.H. Richardson ... some of the greatest architects and visionaries in the nation's history were drawn to this town, and you still feel their energy, their imagination, when you walk the streets at dawn.

In that fashion, Buffalo was an engine. The city attracted a flood of aspiring newcomers who fled poverty and persecution, both from abroad and through the great migration from the South. Once here, they were willing to do hard work in hard places. It was one of America's most dynamic communities, electrified early by raw power that came pulsing from Niagara.

The Liberty Building at dusk in downtown Buffalo. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

You know what happened next: The industrial America that peaked in the 20th century fell into decline. For too many reasons to enumerate — some that were self-inflicted, many that were not — Buffalo became emblematic of Great Lakes cities that spiraled downward, leaving behind a super-skeleton from its age of glory.

Thankfully, moments of civic wisdom have gradually replaced the reflexive, panicky errors that marked too many years of that descent. There are the beginnings of a house-by-house, block-by-block rebirth that many of us waited a lifetime to see, the idea of a revival built to scale. Even so — and God knows we've learned the danger of investing too much hope into such dreams — we could always use that one great, foundation-changing economic burst that shatters entrenched patterns of struggle and despair.

You've already made an investment in this town with your decision to bring a distribution center to Lancaster. If by some magnificent chance you give our city another thought, if you decided to give Buffalo a serious look, I'd suggest you visit the grand and haunting shell that captures everything this city used to represent: the Central Terminal on the city's East Side.

Once, thousands of newcomers poured through a space that will remind you in a ghostly way of Grand Central. It was a palatial entry point for weary families carrying little more than their own desperate hopes, the families whose descendants now define Buffalo itself.

The Central Terminal is often empty, surrounded by neighborhoods of quiet suffering and need, where far too many children live in poverty. It is an echoing landmark with challenges of such magnitude that its future — either rebirth or more disintegration — becomes a kind of crucible for the fortunes of the city around it.

Interior of the Central Terminal in Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Imagine if your second headquarters revived that sprawling complex, linking it by light rail to the city's nearby core, an effort of far greater significance than providing a glittering $5 billion glass trophy to some sprawling community that doesn't really need it. Imagine tens of thousands of jobs as a dynamo for neighborhoods where too many generations have faced suffocating obstacles.

If you aspire to such change, then Buffalo is not an afterthought; it is absolutely fitting. It is just small enough that the project you envision could ripple into every corner of this community, from the schools to the fabric of neglected streets.

Sean Kirst: A lost sister, a Central Terminal reunion, the long road home

Few American cities share the extreme nature of our history, of our rise and fall into this delicate ongoing tale of rebirth. More than a century ago, such luminaries as Tesla and Olmsted came here to do great and unforgettable work. Their sense of invention, their raw genius, lingers in the air. Other cities may have greater wealth, more glass towers, but few exactly offer what could await you in Buffalo:

A chance to prove that Amazon, in the best and highest way, could remake the possibilities for a 21st century city.

Still, one thing that's changed — in a way, the best reason to consider this town — is what we've learned about pursuing any project of this scope. Cities, just like people, rarely win the lottery. There's no harm in buying a ticket, but real hope is built on how we do the small and difficult jobs within arm's reach, every day.

If you come here, that ethic is why you would succeed.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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