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BROWNFIELDS HOLD PROMISE OF REVIVAL FOR BUFFALO

The future is covered by weeds and scrub brush.

The salvation of the city is poisoned land, vast stretches of it -- expanses the size of football fields laid side to side.

It is there, off South Park Avenue. Look hard enough, and you can see the outlines of factories to come, industrial parks of the future, jobs for the jobless, in the forgotten land amid the grain elevators and Buffalo River.

This is the tourniquet that will help stop the bleeding, the antidote to the exodus to the suburbs -- or the Carolinas.

Buffalo's population has declined, to about 300,000, said a city official. Three hundred people a month are leaving.

There are things happening that could stop the slide. Maybe the best of them is the promise of the poisoned lands, ground where the Republic Steel plant once stood.

They are called brownfields, former industrial sites that are, across the country, being cleaned and reused.

They will give the city what it doesn't now have: wide open spaces, open arms for heavy and light industry, office parks, warehouses.

New business. Jobs. Tax revenue.

That's what built the city. That's what will be its salvation.

It's what the suburbs can't offer, not with roads and rail lines and sewers already there, not with the Peace Bridge -- the door to trade and Canada -- five minutes away.

Jim Allen is head of the Amherst IDA. He's not the most popular guy in the city, having dangled tax breaks to lure businesses that weren't leaving the area anyway. But he knows what businesses need to stay or relocate here. And he understands that when companies stay or move in, it helps city and suburbs.

"Once these sites are cleaned up, it gives the city a tremendous advantage (over the suburbs)," said Allen. "Which means our region has a tremendous advantage."

The potential, said Allen, is for "hundreds of millions in capital investment and thousands of jobs."

It costs $150,000 for an acre of office park space in Amherst, $90,000 for light industrial.

"The price of that (brownfields) land is far less," said Allen. "And the infrastructure -- rail lines, roads, sewer -- is more than you'll ever need. You couldn't afford to build all that today."

Some of it -- there are more than 1,200 acres of poisoned land -- will take a while to clean. But Agro Power Development, a company that grows tomatoes in water, already has its greenhouse up on the site of the former Republic Steel parking lot. It's putting $14.5 million in and hiring 175 people.

Another 100 acres of clean land will open up next summer, with other chunks to follow.

"We can't afford to wait 10 years," said Mayor Masiello. "We need it now."

For a city beaten down by an unending stream of bad news, this is more than jobs and tax revenue. It is hope.

Because it does not have much open land, the city almost lost Colad Group. The company makes folders and packaging. One hundred and fifty people work there. It needed eight acres to expand into last year.

The city had one site that large.

"Availability of land is the big issue," said Bill Brosnahan, Colad president. "We almost had to go to Amherst, and we didn't want to. A lot of my people use public transportation."

When the poisoned land becomes clean, there will be no more close calls, no stories of companies uprooting because the city didn't have enough space.

It's fashionable to dump on Buffalo. Granted, some of its problems over the years come from self-inflicted wounds: politics and patronage and myopia.

But most of what happened the past decades, here and elsewhere, was beyond anyone's control.

The mills and factories closed. New highways and low-interest housing loans created the suburbs. Cities became warehouses for the poor, elderly, minorities and low-lifes -- anybody who couldn't afford or didn't fit into the suburban dream.

The snowball started rolling. The more people who left, the greater the weight of crime and taxes and troubled schools. No regional planning meant more sprawl without more people, which sucked more life out of the city.

And everybody wonders how and when it stops. It stops, in part, on poisoned land, vast stretches of it, covered with weeds.

This is where Buffalo started, its might and muscle in steel.

This is where it can revive.

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