Three cheers for Alphonso O'Neil-White. The president of HealthNow New York is conducting his company's search for a new headquarters with more than the bottom line in mind. He also wants the move to be "a catalyst for community development." If every corporation were so public spirited, Buffalo would be a stronger city.
HealthNow is the parent company of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York. It must leave its current Main Street office by late 2007 to make way for an expansion by Canisius College.
It could go anywhere, but has focused its attention on a number of sites in Buffalo, including the contaminated five-acre site of the former Buffalo Gas Light Co., where only a long, gray-stone facade remains of the original 19th century buildings. With 1,200 jobs, it will make an economic splash wherever it lands.
Ironically, the site is owned by National Fuel, which has forsaken Buffalo in a move to Amherst. The difference between the two could hardly be more stark. Unlike National Fuel, HealthNow understands that it is possible to serve both its legitimate corporate needs and important community interests. It doesn't have to be one or the other.
While the National Fuel site is just one of many being considered, it clearly would be a more attractive location if it were cleaned up. A spokesman for National Fuel said the company has a remediation plan for the site, and is just waiting for approval by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The proposed cleanup would make the site suitable for industrial or commercial development, the company said.
Given National Fuel's lack of concern for downtown Buffalo when it left for the suburbs, leaving a shovel-ready site for development to help the city's tax base is the least it can do.
When O'Neil-White said, "We want our relocation to be more than just a move to a new site," he was recognizing that institutional goals and civic responsibility can be compatible. That truism too often goes unrecognized here. National Fuel is just one example. Another is the board of Erie Community College, whose master plan includes growth in Buffalo, but only enough to placate Erie County Executive Joel Giambra, who is urging an eventual consolidation downtown.
It is no exaggeration to say that Buffalo is now in the fight of its life. It has too little money, too many state mandates and no immediate prospects for a surge in its tax base. That makes it all the more crucial for companies that are already in the city to stay.
HealthNow's commitment to Buffalo, and perhaps to downtown, shows that it understands that civic responsibility. Others should take a lesson from the insurer's approach, and realize that they can meet their primary fiduciary responsibilities and be good citizens, too.