The city has almost 10 million people, but no name.
Workers commute along its highways, while students shuttle to school. Companies buy and sell, patients get treatment and shoppers hop to their favorite spots -- doing their best to ignore the barrier that cleaves the city in two.
We know part of that "city" as Buffalo. The other part is Toronto and everything in between.
Researchers at the University at Buffalo released a year-long study this month that highlights the web of interdependence within the urban zone that stretches from Toronto to Buffalo, providing support for the idea of cross-border cooperation instead of barrier-building.
"It's a story of interdependency and opportunity," said Kathryn Bryk Friedman, director of the Region's Edge project at the University at Buffalo's Regional Institute.
The year-long Region's Edge study found that border-hopping business created $133.5 million in revenue and 1,627 jobs between 2000 and 2006 in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls side of the border. That was in just four industries -- a fraction of the total economic impact.
Friedman presented the findings at a meeting that drew business and political leaders from both banks of the Niagara.
"All of us own the benefits of Niagara on the Lake. All of us own the theater district in Buffalo," said Robert Gabriel, council member of the Regional Municipality of Niagara and one of the approximately 80 people who attended.
The study comes against the backdrop of the on-again, off-again federal passport requirement for entering the U.S. from Canada. The measure, now set to go into effect in mid-2008, has been widely decried by local businesses and cultural groups as a choke-hold on cross-border activity.
Local businesses have long clamored for easier border crossings and more coordination of infrastructure to spur economic growth. In 2003, business and local government leaders came together in the Niagara Bi-national Region Economic Roundtable, chaired by Rich Products President Robert E. Rich and Dofasco Steel Chairman John Mayberry. Among other measures, it recommended a border-area agency to coordinate transportation planning and more coordination of shared assets, such as the region's 60 centers of higher education.
But Washington takes other factors into consideration when deciding how tight to make the border. A secure frontier is integral to sovereignty and plays well politically to voters in the interior of the nation.
"It's unfortunate we don't think more regionally than we have," said Kenneth Franasiak, president of Calamar, a bi-national commercial property development company based in Wheatfield and Toronto. The roundtable report essentially "sat on a shelf" rather than leading to action, he said.
For the Buffalo region, accustomed to thinking of itself as a minor city with a shrinking population, taking a bi-national approach could be a tonic.
The crescent-shaped megalopolis that bends around the heel of Lake Ontario has 9.7 million residents, the largest of the four major U.S.-Canada border cities, UB's study said. It surpasses Seattle-Vancouver with 5.7 million, Detroit-Windsor with 5.1 million and Montreal-Lake Champlain with 3.9 million.
While the region encompasses many cities and towns, it also has aspects of a single entity. There were 370,000 pedestrian crossings over the Niagara River in 2005, 13.2 million passengers in personal vehicles and another 1.4 million bus passengers, the study found. Some of that traffic may have been long-haul destined for distant parts of Canada and the U.S., but much of it likely started and ended within the border city.
Just how much of the cross-border traffic represents local economic activity has always been difficult to gauge. UB researchers went so far as to poll nightlife, finding that 30 percent of weekend receipts in the register at Peppermints, a male strip club in Niagara Falls, are U.S. currency.
The UB study didn't seek to prescribe policy measures to nurture the bi-national economic activity. However, the results point toward the benefits of cross-border cooperation.
With more than 2,500 Canadians attending area colleges in 2006 and 1,100 coming to area hospitals since 2000, the Buffalo area can capitalize on its status as an overflow for the strapped medical services north of the border. Meanwhile, Americans account for up to 90 percent of membership at southern Ontario country clubs and own property assessed at $277 million (Canadian) along Fort Erie's beachfront.
"We are far too interdependent to think of pulling apart," said Nicholas Giacobbe Jr., public affairs officer of the U.S. Consulate in Toronto, who attended the meeting.
The Regional Institute, a unit of UB's Law School, focuses projects and initiatives that address challenges facing the Buffalo-Niagara region.
Canadian impact on the Buffalo Niagara economy
*$42 million in hospital visits
*33 percent of parked cars at Buffalo-Niagara International Airport
*12 percent of Sabres seasonticket holders and up to 15,000 seats at Bills home games
*40 percent of students at D'Youville College, and a substantial fraction at other local schools
Source: University at Buffalo Regional Institute