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If the economy were like a foot race, the Buffalo Niagara region would still be walking up to the starting blocks, while most of the rest of the country already had heard the gun and started running down the track.

During the 1990s, the rest of the nation enjoyed the longest stretch of prosperity in its history and the Buffalo Niagara region's growth was pitifully weak. It seems to be happening all over again.

The national recession officially ended three years ago this month, but the Buffalo Niagara region still is jettisoning jobs, although at a slower rate in recent months.

In other words, the region, once again, has a lot of catching up to do. Further
proof of that came earlier this month, when researchers at the Milken Institute, a California think tank, ranked the nation's 200 biggest metro areas based on a handful of economic yardsticks, ranging from job and income growth to concentration of high-tech jobs and industries.

What they found wasn't encouraging. Not only is the Buffalo Niagara region doing worse than it was a year ago, compared with its ranking against other cities, the area also fared worse than the average metro area in each of the nine benchmarks the researchers used.

"It's taking a little longer for Buffalo to recover than the rest of the nation," says Armen Bedroussian, a Milken Institute research analyst and one of the report's authors. "In all of the growth measures, Buffalo is lagging behind the average."

As a result, the Buffalo Niagara region's already dismal ranking in the survey got even drearier, dropping from 161st in last year's rankings to 173rd this year.

"I don't think the drop in the ranking for Buffalo is that significant," Bedroussian says. "It's not so much that Buffalo got worse, as much as it is that the other areas went forward."

In other words, our economy is slowly getting better, or more accurately, our downward spiral is slowing. But the rest of the country already is growing, enjoying the fruits of a modest expansion while we're still trying to break our fall, falling farther and farther behind.

While our economy is shifting to more of a services base as the region's manufacturing keeps declining, the growth in service jobs hasn't been concentrated in the better-paying professions, such as the engineering and high-tech fields, Bedroussian says. The region gets about 25 percent less of an economic punch from high-tech industries than the country generally.

So the region's job growth has trailed the rest of the country by about 3 percent from 1998 through last year, which was worse than almost three of every four of the big metro areas surveyed. But with the local job market's make-up starting to more closely mirror the nation as a whole, the region last year managed to hold its own in job growth compared with the rest of the country.

"The recession has been centered in manufacturing," says John Slenker, the state Labor Department's regional economist in Buffalo. "Once manufacturing stabilizes, we'll start to see better overall numbers."

More disturbing, wages and salaries over the last five years grew more slowly here than in all but 10 of the major cities surveyed, lagging behind the national average by nearly 12 percent, although the gap narrowed a bit to 1.5 percent in 2002.

The Buffalo Niagara region isn't alone at the bottom of the rankings. Binghamton ranked just behind Buffalo at No. 176, while Rochester fared even worse at No. 182. Syracuse did a bit better, coming in with a far-from-healthy finish at No. 149, while the Albany area plunged 94 spots in the ranking to come in at No. 131. Upstate also held up the bottom of the Milken Institutes ranking of 118 small cities, with Jamestown coming in next-to-last, just two behind No. 115 Elmira.

Misery sure loves company.


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