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SHUFFLE OUT OF BUFFALO MIGRATION SOUTH LEAVES AREA OLDER, POORER

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Census Bureau can't measure what Buffalo lost when Sandy Quinlan, Wayne Ruben and Sydney Montague moved away.

In Miss Quinlan, Buffalo lost an energetic young woman with a quick wit and a ready smile, a natural-born marketing rep if ever there was one.

In Ruben, Buffalo lost a hard-charging real estate developer who helped build countless shopping plazas, a hotel and a golf course since moving here.

And in Montague, Buffalo lost a modern-day Renaissance man who paints stormy seascapes, designs dazzling modern sculptures and brews a hoppy homemade beer that's far more wicked than Pete's Wicked Ale.

In short, when they moved here to Florida's Sun Coast, Buffalo lost a bit of its future, and a bit of its soul.

It would be bad enough if it were just Ms. Quinlan, Ruben and Montague, but it's not. So far in the 1990s, the number of people moving out of the Buffalo area exceeded the number moving in by 49,437. In percentage terms, Utica and Binghamton lost people even faster.

Some, like Miss Quinlan, leave upstate for a fresh start in a land where jobs are as abundant as the sunshine. Others retire to a state where both the weather and the government are far less taxing. A few of the migrants return when times get tough, but most who leave say they're gone for good.

Fleeing upstate's economic torpor, they only make their hometown poorer. Internal Revenue Service statistics show the Buffalo-area economy lost $147.45 million in incomes in 1996 alone thanks to the population drain.

Worse yet, the exodus gets bigger every year, and no one knows when it will end. Business people and demographers alike see upstate's population becoming smaller, older and poorer -- a combination that's deadly to new business growth.

"The migration scares the daylights out of me," said Robert G. Wilmers, chairman of Buffalo's M&T Bank.

For Buffalo-area residents who leave the state, the Tampa Bay area -- Tampa, St. Petersburg and nearby towns such as Dunedin -- is by far the No. 1 destination. Some 1,187 people left the Buffalo area for Florida's sprawling "Sun Coast" in 1994 and 1995, joining a migration that has been going on for years.

Those who come feel right at home. They can catch Bills games at the Nickel City Grill in Pinellas Park. They can join the Buffalo Club that meets in St. Petersburg once a month. Or they can join the "Alley Cats," a group of Allegany and Cattaraugus County expatriates who meet for sun and fun in New Port Richey.

All these newcomers to the Sun Coast seem to have one thing in common: They say they love Buffalo but have no regrets about leaving it.

"I didn't even look for a new job in Buffalo," said Ms. Quinlan, 38, who was laid off last year after a decade at International Imaging Materials Inc., the Buffalo maker of printer ribbons known to many as Iimak. "The idea of spending my whole life in one city bothered me. And it seemed like every
place else was so much more vibrant."

In many ways, Miss Quinlan is the quintessential new Floridian. While the state still attracts thousand of retirees, more young people are heading south for the good weather and the good jobs.

Not long after arriving here last fall, Miss Quinlan found a marketing job at a small but growing company that makes high-tech optical equipment in Dunedin. Already, she can't imagine moving back to Buffalo.

"What keeps you in a particular place?" she asked. "Your friends, your family, your job. Once those ties are broken, everything looks wide open."

Many people come here knowing it's far easier to make money in an area where new prospective customers are moving in by the thousands.

The Tampa Bay area added nearly 125,000 residents in the first six years of the 1990s, and nearby counties gained tens of thousands more. Everywhere you look, Wal-Marts and other retail stores are sprouting up to serve those new Floridians.

And Buffalo's Benderson Development Co. built plenty of them.

From its office in Clearwater, Benderson runs 22 shopping plazas and has diversified into other ventures it never tried back home.

Driving through the sprawling suburbs north of St. Petersburg, Wayne Ruben -- the Benderson partner in charge of the Florida operation -- marveled at the growth.

"I was just in the building permit department down in Manatee County, and there were so many people in there, it reminded me of being in a deli," Ruben said. "I literally had to take a number."

Back home, though, everything looks a bit bleaker. When ambitious young people such as Miss Quinlan and Ruben leave, upstate business people say it puts a damper on their own future, and the area's.

"Generally, it's the best and the brightest who are leaving," said Richard T. Stephens, president of Delaware North Cos., the sports and food service company based in Buffalo.

Retiring from the tax man

The best and brightest retirees are leaving, too. A decade ago, Montague took his snowblower up and down Buffalo's Mariner Street after every storm, never charging a dime for the effort. Now he's the neighborhood fix-it man and resident artisan in a tidy subdivision in Bradenton, Fla.

The tax man and the snow man shuffled him out of Buffalo.

"The taxes were just going out of this world back there," said Montague, 75, who moved south with his wife, Judy, five years ago. "Every time I turned around, I had to go down to City Hall to fight my assessment."

Even though Mrs. Montague was working, it made sense for the Montagues to look for cheaper environs.

"I don't know if people understand how difficult it is for people on a fixed income to stay in Buffalo," Mrs. Montague said.

The numbers show how tough it is.

First, look at real estate taxes. The average Buffalo-area homeowner paid $2,156 in real estate taxes in 1996, while the average resident in Sarasota-Bradenton paid $1,465, according to the Places Rated Almanac.

Financial planners say that matters a great deal to the typical person who moves from Buffalo to Tampa, who is anything but rich. In 1996, the median income of a Buffalo-area resident moving to Tampa was about $20,000.

More importantly for retirees, New York starts collecting taxes on annual pensions over $20,000, while Florida has no income tax. For a retired executive and his wife with an annual pension of $200,000, a move to Florida means an $11,816 annual savings.

Finally, there are estate taxes. New York will scale down its high estate tax rate to match Florida's level over the next few years, but that's too late to prevent some wealthy people from moving to save money for their heirs. On a $1 million estate, for instance, a New Yorker could save his family about $20,000 by moving to Florida.

"The state has not created an environment that encourages retirees to stay in New York," said Anthony Ogorek, a Williamsville financial planner.

God didn't create a climate that encourages retirees to stay, either. Montague moved, in part, because a bad fall convinced him that he was too old to be spending the winters in the slush and snow. Other retirees say they moved for similar reasons.

Sometimes, though, New York State doesn't believe them.

New York is notorious for investigating those who change their residence to make sure they really moved and aren't just trying to dodge taxes.

All told, New York's inquisition against its expatriates has brought more than $1 billion to the state coffers, but at a heavy price, said Paul Comeau, a Buffalo attorney who specializes in such cases. Unless they want the tax man crawling up their back, those who move are advised to sever virtually all their ties to New York.

That's just what Richard E. Gray did. Owner of a foundry in Syracuse, Gray moved to Amelia Island, Fla., in 1985, insisting he did it for health reasons. But he maintained his business ties and his charitable giving back in Syracuse, which prompted the state to take him to court.

The case, which Gray lost, cost him $270,000 in legal fees alone. And even though New York no longer looks at charitable giving as a sign that someone hasn't really moved, Gray now only gives to one charity back in Syracuse -- while donating plenty to 17 in Florida.

"New York State is so greedy to get their money that they lose sight of the long-term effect of their greed," said Gray, who's now 71.

Heading home poorer

Of course, not everyone who leaves upstate stays away. Some leave because they can't make it at home, only to find they can't make it elsewhere, either. So they return, poorer than ever.

Nearing 40 and one course short of a college degree, Howard Kulwicki moved to Orlando last year, thinking that Disney World could give him what Buffalo couldn't: a chance to be a graphic designer.

Kulwicki spent most of his savings waiting for Disney to return his call and used the rest for a bus ticket back home, where he ended up at the City Mission.

"I've never been a drug addict or an alcoholic," Kulwicki said. "I keep asking myself: Why is this happening to me? I thought I'd be working at an ad agency by now."

Others come back to New York when they're old and failing -- and in need of the extensive and expensive health care services the state provides.

No doubt about it, upstate New York is aging. While the population has fallen in the 1990s in Buffalo, Syracuse and Binghamton, the number of people age 65 and older increased.

That's why Peter Rogerson, a geography professor at the University at Buffalo, worries about upstate's growing "dependent" population and the lack of a strong tax base to support it.

The trouble isn't just population loss. It's also the fact that the people moving to upstate New York are a bit poorer than the ones who are leaving. Those departing Syracuse in 1995, for example, earned an average of $19,703. Those moving to Syracuse made $18,872.

Worries about population loss and a dwindling tax base resonate all across the state, and more so in Utica than anywhere else. Utica is one of the fastest-shrinking metro areas in the country, losing 5.6 percent of its population in the 1990s.

Those who stay will pay for the shrinkage.

"The city of Utica still needs to have a sewer system and streets and all these other services, and there are fewer and fewer people to pay for them," said William Blanchfield, an economics professor at Utica College.

Demographers worry that the situation could get worse before it gets better. Rogerson said he's surprised at how many people he knows who say they want to leave Buffalo.

Hearing that, people in Florida happily say: Come on down.

Ten years ago, Kathryn Carlson left the Town of Tonawanda and her job at Citibank, hoping to go to school in Florida and enjoy the good weather.

While working as a waitress, she got the chance, out of nowhere, to buy into Kelly's, a colorful restaurant on Dunedin's Main Street.

"This is the land of opportunity," said Mrs. Carlson, 38. "I just waltzed into this one. I never had that kind of opportunity in Buffalo."

THURSDAY: A weaker work force.

Jerry Zremski's email address is: jzremski@erols.com.

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