In 1980, Andrew Craig, the president of M&T Bank, said to the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce, "It is not difficult to envision a Buffalo 15 years from now, on the verge of the 21st century, as a dominant force in the economy of the Northeast and even the entire United States."
In November of that same year, many of us sat in cold, damp Rich Stadium and watched the Buffalo Bills beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. The crowd was on its feet singing the song "Talking Proud." I will never forget the lines "Buffalo's got a spirit, talking proud, talking proud." The Chamber of Commerce had come up with this two-minute jingle that told the story of Buffalo.
We lived in a city that had a healthy economy and low crime. The people were warm and friendly, and the cost of living was affordable. We wanted all of America to know we were proud to say we lived in Buffalo.
Were things really that good in Buffalo in 1980, or was this some scheme devised to cover up the huge inferiority complex that Buffalo had developed during the 1970s? That was when Buffalo lost tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs and many businesses either left Buffalo or closed entirely. And finally we were devastated by the Blizzard of 1977. Sports Illustrated called Buffalo the "armpit of the East."
My guess is that the Talking Proud campaign was designed to cover up the truth. Buffalo was a city in big trouble.
So here we are 18 years later. We still have this huge inferiority complex, and we have a city that is rapidly becoming a suburb to the Town of Amherst. How many of us will admit that we have been embarrassed to say to other people around the country "I live in Buffalo"?
The fact is that Buffalo is where it is today because government and business leaders have made some very poor decisions during the last 30 years.
We allowed businesses like Houdaille, National Gypsum, Western Electric and Trico to leave Buffalo without putting up a fight. The unfortunate decision was made to put Rich Stadium and the new University of Buffalo campus in the suburbs. We built a $500 million subway system that goes nowhere and that helped put hundreds of businesses along Main Street into bankruptcy while being built.
Business owners allowed factories to become antiquated and obsolete. Our work force became overpaid and unproductive, allowing jobs to be lost to Mexico. Huge businesses in Buffalo simply closed down instead of rebuilding with modern, state-of-the-art machinery. And New York State taxes have consistently been the highest of any state's.
If we, the citizens of Western New York, are going to see things change for the better, we are going to have to begin to think together as one region. We must end the mentality that pits city against suburbs.
Take a close look at the inner suburbs of Cheektowaga, Eggertsville and Kenmore, and you will see that the problems do not stop at the Buffalo border. Urban sprawl will eventually cause the deterioration of these fine towns.
If the towns and villages in Erie County can join together with the City of Buffalo and act as a unified party, the potential is limitless. To create new jobs in Western New York, we must shrink government and lower the cost of doing business. Just think of the duplicated services in the governments of Western New York right now. Why do we need separate purchasing departments, parks departments or highway departments?
The tremendous level of growth in towns like Amherst, Orchard Park and East Aurora is wonderful for Western New York as a whole. But any successful city has to have a viable downtown. It doesn't have to dominate, but it has to be strong. Downtown is what the whole area identifies with, and so do people who want to relocate here. If a community is going to be viable and successful, its downtown has to be.
Let us put an end to the endless number of mistakes we have made in Western New York during the last three or four decades. Let us move forward as a unified front and begin to speak in truly positive terms about Buffalo. A regional government will lower taxes, allowing us to attract new business, just as it did in Nashville, Indianapolis and Portland. Instead of Amherst attracting jobs from the City of Buffalo, why not attract jobs from another city?
Regionalism is the belief that increased cooperation among our county, city, towns and villages will produce not only more effective and less expensive government, but a more sustainable, inclusive and prosperous community.
As we move forward into the year 2000, maybe we won't be the dominant city that Andrew Craig envisioned in 1980, but we surely can demand from our political leaders a more regionalized approach to solving our problems.
GARY P. HESS is a private business owner in Buffalo. He was president of the Buffalo Renaissance Foundation in 1997 when they commissioned the Center for Governmental Research Study on Regional Government called "No Handout, No Bailout."