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1960 forecast of city's future is chagrining

I've lived in the Buffalo Niagara region for 22 years, and I've often wondered what it was like here decades earlier, when the city was in its heyday.

I got to thinking about that again last week, when I came across a special section published by The News back in 1960 that tried to predict what the region would be like in 1980. Its yellowed pages are filled with articles that brim with confidence and optimism, not the inferiority complex that so often shrouds the region today.

"Buffalo in 1980 will be entering its 'golden age.' Our city will be a creative, prosperous, beautiful metropolitan area of more than 2 million people," predicted Melvin H. Baker, the chairman of the National Gypsum Co.

He foresaw the construction of the Metro Rail, but he overreached with his eminently sensible prediction that it would be a way to speed the commute from the suburbs.

He predicted that Buffalo would have major league football and hockey teams, but went too far by guessing that major league baseball would come here, too.

And he thought Buffalo would continue to be an industrial powerhouse, fueled by innovations and new technology developed in concert with the University at Buffalo and the area's other colleges.

"Buffalo will continue as one of the nation's top manufacturing centers," he predicted.

Little did Baker know that by 1980, National Gypsum, once the largest industrial company based in the city, would have moved its headquarters from Buffalo to Dallas and its biggest division to Charlotte, N.C.

Chamber of Commerce President Howard W. Pearce saw some trouble brewing with other towns poaching local businesses, but he was equally optimistic. He predicted that other communities would stop offering "wild inducements," such as tax breaks, low-rate financing and free land to entice Buffalo Niagara businesses to move.

"Even if some industry-hungry area does make an offer like this, management will not fall for it," Pearce said. "From the experience of other fugitive industries, they will know that taxes are sure to rise in their new location and labor is certain to become organized."

And there was little reason to believe then that the other pillars of local industry -- steel, auto and chemicals -- all would have started the downward spiral that would destroy so many thousands of jobs and fuel the exodus that would leave the region today only a little more than half the size that Baker predicted.

Then again, Baker and other local leaders expected Buffalo to still be one of the world's biggest ports, thanks to the All-American ship canal that they believed would complement the Welland Canal and offer a quick, domestic route between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

"Our Seaway port will be one of the busiest in the world," Baker wrote. "New piers, warehouses and industries will line the waterfront from the Coast Guard station south to Hamburg."

Of course, there is no All-American canal today, and the St. Lawrence Seaway ended up minimizing Buffalo's role as a shipping center.

In some cases, the issues raised by the local business and academic leaders who were asked by the News 47 years ago to make predictions are the same things that we're talking about today.

One article by Leonard Halpert, who would go on to become The News' editorial page editor, boldly predicted that metro government would be a reality by 1980. He foresaw a countywide police force and countywide property assessment, functions still handled by a jumble of local municipalities, despite continual calls for consolidation and complaints about high taxes.

It was a dream then. It's still a dream today.

e-mail: drobinson@buffnews.com

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