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David Robinson's 2017 in review: Some winners, some losers

The Buffalo Niagara economy still has its upbeat buzz.

There’s optimism because 2017 saw many of the big projects the region has been counting on to boost its long-sagging economy — from the new University at Buffalo medical school and the new Oishei Children’s Hospital to the start of production at the Tesla solar panel factory — finally open for business. The local job market remains tight, and unemployment is hovering around 5 percent.

Yet our job growth — already lagging behind the rest of the country — slowed further during 2017, despite the region’s renewed sense of optimism.

With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the Buffalo Niagara business community’s winners and losers in a year that Goldilocks surely would love.

Winners

Uber — Ride-hailing finally is available in Buffalo and across upstate New York.

The long fight was a prime illustration of all that is wrong with New York government, with Albany allowing it downstate, but not upstate, as taxi companies fiercely fought to protect their turf. It left Buffalo as the biggest city in the country where you couldn’t hail an Uber or a Lyft, hardly the image of a progressive town at a time when the region desperately wanted to keep Millennials from fleeing.

But all is right now. Ride-hailing is here. Taxi companies are sprucing up their fleets and adding new services. Competition is good.

Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus — The region’s medical hub has finally reached critical mass.

The opening of the new Oishei Children’s Hospital and the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences not only gives the region state-of-the-art medical facilities, but it puts them all in the same area, creating a center for not only patient care, but hopefully commercial innovation and research that will further spur the Buffalo Niagara economy.

The promise is there. We can only hope the results will follow.

Home sellers — The local housing market is hot, hot, hot.

Median sale prices are up nearly 7 percent over the past 12 months — the biggest annualized increase in seven years — as home sales have remained at a near-record pace. Prices are rising because buyers have fewer homes to choose from: There are half as many homes for sale now than there were seven years ago.

So buyers are acting fast and paying pretty much what the sellers want. Sellers are getting roughly 98 percent of their asking price, on average, up from around 95 percent just three years ago. Homes this year are selling in an average of three months, half the time a home spent on the market as recently as 2014.

The downside: homes here are becoming less affordable, eroding one of the biggest cost-of-living advantages the region has.

Old buildings — Got an old building? Turn it into pricey apartments and office space. And get tax breaks to do it.

The renovation renaissance has spruced up dozens of shoddy buildings from Buffalo Niagara’s industrial heyday, creating new housing options within the city for residents with a hankering for urban living, often in neighborhoods that had seen little housing investment in decades.

It’s giving Buffalo some trendy housing options, but only time will tell if the renovation boom will be derailed by the cutback in incentives included in the new tax bill.

Losers

LPCiminelli — The Buffalo-based contractor is proof that even allegations of corruption can be a death sentence for a business.

The company and its top executives were losers last year after being accused of participating in a pay-to-play scheme for a juicy contract to build the RiverBend solar panel factory under the state’s Buffalo Billion program.

It only got worse for LPCiminelli this year. The company shut down its once-bustling contracting business and auctioned off its equipment in a sobering reminder that there’s no substitute for a pristine reputation.

Cellino & Barnes — Can’t we all just get along? For these personal injury lawyers, even making $1 million a month can’t breed harmony.

While local TV and billboards still bombard us with ads featuring smiling partners Ross Cellino and Stephen Barnes, the feud between them threatens to tear the law firm apart. Cellino wants out. Barnes wants him to stay.

We’ll probably never know how many potential clients were driven away by the ugly and highly public spat. But it’s made for one of the most riveting courtroom dramas in a long time.

Local shopping malls — The Retail Apocalypse is upon us, and local malls are in big trouble.

The Boulevard Mall was sold to avoid defaulting on its debt. The McKinley Mall lost Macy’s as an anchor tenant. Bon-Ton, the department store chain that has lost money for seven straight years, is getting ready to close 40 stores and that may be just the start.

It’s not likely to get any better, either, as shifting shopping habits push more sales online, leaving local malls on very thin ice.

Sam Hoyt – Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

As an assemblyman, Hoyt was embroiled in scandal after getting caught in an inappropriate relationship with an intern. He quickly bounced back to become the Cuomo administration’s top economic development official in Western New York — until he suddenly quit last fall after paying $50,000 to a woman who alleges that he got her a state job, then harassed, threatened and groped her.

Sometimes, the hardest lessons are the ones we never learn.

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