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There will be about 30 of them, family and friends, gathered at the house for Thanksgiving. Unlike many families in this region, all came to the feast from near, not from far.

Ben and Anne Weppner know they are lucky. Many young people leave this economically challenged area for greener job pastures. The Weppners have five adult sons. When the youngest, Andrew, moved back here from Erie, Pa., last summer, it meant all of the Weppner boys live within 10 minutes of their parents' Amherst home.

It's a story not just of a close family, geographically and emotionally. It's a tale of shared affection for the Buffalo Niagara region, what it offers and how it pulls people back.

Anne Weppner, 66, is reminded of how lucky she is all the time, sometimes in the oddest places. Last week it was in the sauna at the Jewish Community Center. A woman sharing the steam said she had heard about her good fortune.

Weppner recalls, "She said: 'You seem like a nice person, but I don't like you. My kids are scattered to the four corners, and you've got all of yours right here.' "

The writer Thomas Wolfe said you can't go home again. Nobody told the five Weppner boys. They all left for college. Some of them worked out of town for a spell. But when Andrew got the promotion at his pharmaceutical job that allowed him to return, it meant that all the boys were back, living in the same ZIP code.

When the promotion came through, Andrew called his mother.

"We'd all been on pins and needles about it," said Andrew, 34, who in 16 years away had never given up his Bills season tickets. "I told her, and she just started crying. The next weekend, we came up and they threw a coming-home party for us."

Geographically close families like the Weppners may be becoming more common here. According to recent U.S. census data, the number of people moving back into Erie and Niagara counties last year may have -- for the first time in years -- outnumbered those moving out. Since 1995, about 50,000 people have moved here from out of state. Although that's still fewer than those who have left, the exodus seems to be leveling off.

All five Weppner sons found jobs in their professions. Tim, 41, is in medical sales. Matthew, 39, is an engineer. John, 37, is in sales. Mark, 35, is in marketing. Andrew, 34, is in pharmaceutical sales. Four are married, and their wives also found work here.

They love the area

The Weppners say the desire to return goes beyond family ties. There's also an affection for the area. The attachment to Buffalo is born not of parochialism, but of perspective. All five sons have seen much of the country, for work or school. Some went beyond the West Coast to the Far East. But they found no place like this place.

It's a sentiment they share with their father, Ben, a retired engineer. Travel for his job frequently took him out of town. When meeting clients, he purposely picked them up at their homes instead of the hotel or office. That way, he'd see what neighborhoods in different cities looked like.

"I remember going to Los Angeles in the '50s and '60s, and seeing houses made of cinder block," said Ben Weppner, 69. "And they just kept building more of them. It wasn't the kind of neighborhoods we had here."

He cites the quality of life here for a reasonable cost, making Buffalo a bargain for those with decent-paying jobs. The family skied in the winter, rented a cottage on the lake in summer. The street they grew up on in Snyder was filled with young families. There were neighborhood camping trips and other outings. Ziggy's, the neighborhood taco place, was like a clubhouse for the boys.

"I wanted my kids to have the same things I had growing up," said Andrew Weppner, whose sons are 2 years and 6 months old. "It's a great area, people are nice, we've got Niagara Falls and skiing and the lake."

It's the sort of life the Weppner sons wanted for their kids: entertainment for all seasons, good schools and neighborhoods, a sense of community. It was easier to find in a smaller city than in a metropolis.

"It's not so much a coming back to the nest," said Ben Weppner, "as it is a choice of where they want to live."

The choice came with sacrifices. Andrew and Desiree Weppner left behind friends in Erie.

"It's great to be back," said Desiree Weppner, who grew up in Angola. "But after living in Pennsylvania, the (property) taxes in Amherst are a shock."

Still, they said, the area and the family ties made the choice easy.

"I didn't want my sons to grow up not knowing their cousins and grandparents," said Andrew.

There's a huge photo on Anne and Ben Weppner's living room wall of their 10 grandkids, ranging in age from 6 months to 15 years.

"They go to each other's hockey and soccer games," said Ben Weppner. "The cousins act more like brothers and sisters."

The family closeness, he said, isn't claustrophobic.

"Nobody gets marching orders," said Ben Weppner. "If you can't come to an event, it's not a big issue."

Treatment nearby

There's something beyond the geographic closeness to celebrate this year. Anne Weppner has been battling cancer. She recently found out that it's in remission.

Even that fact brought forth a blast of hometown boosterism. Many of her fellow patients at Roswell Park Cancer Institute were from Pennsylvania or other distant parts.

"Here is this great cancer center, and it's right here," she said. "I didn't have to travel."

None of the Weppners had far to travel to get to dinner today. It's yet another reason one family is thankful.


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