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Region continues to see people flee; City of Buffalo population declined by 31,338, recent census data shows

Years of steady population decline across the Buffalo Niagara region continued through the decade of the 2000s, and leading the way was none other than the City of Buffalo -- that proverbial hole in the doughnut that's getting a lot bigger.

Buffalo's population dropped by 31,338 residents between 2000 and 2010, new census figures released Thursday showed.

That 10.7 percent decline in the city's population -- which stood at 261,310 in 2010 -- was among the largest of any place in New York State, although the 9.8 percent drop in Niagara Falls followed close behind.

"I'm still lifting my jaw off the ground," said Bart Roberts, a policy analyst with the University at Buffalo's Regional Institute. "I'm shocked Buffalo lost as much population as it did, particularly because the intercensus estimates weren't as bleak as it shows."

The figures released Thursday are the first glimpse of detailed local-level data from the 2010 Census for New York. And while it was no surprise Buffalo's population continued its downward spiral, the size of the city's losses caught many off guard.

The census figures also showed a Western New York community that, while declining in population, grew more diverse and spread out.

Places like Wheatfield and Clarence boomed, while first-ring suburbs like Cheektowaga and the Town of Tonawanda saw their numbers dwindle.

Take a step back, in fact, and all eight counties of Western New York lost population.

Erie County's population went down 3.3 percent, or 31,225 people, to 919,040 in 2010. Niagara County's populace went down 1.53 percent, or 3,377 people, to 216,469.

Cattaraugus County, meanwhile, suffered a 4.3 percent decline; Chautauqua declined by 3.5 percent; Wyoming lost 2.9 percent; and Allegany County lost 2 percent of its populations.

Orleans and Genesee counties saw the smallest declines. Orleans lost one-fifth of one percent, while Genesee lost one-half of one percent.

Put it this way: Of the 17 counties that lost population in New York, nearly half of them were in Western New York.

"It's not a pretty picture," said Robert B. Ward, deputy director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the University at Albany. "Given the older population of Western New York, there will be further decline unless there is a real uptick in births or migration patterns."

Those losses in Western New York counties are in contrast not only with downstate but most of upstate. Monroe and Onondaga counties gained population over the past 10 years.

"The upstate story is not a universal one of decline," Ward said. "The Finger Lakes region is looking different than Western New York, and most of the counties at the very northern end of the state are showing growth."

"Even though we think of upstate as one region," Ward added, "it's a number of subregions that can have very different patterns going on."

Mayor Byron W. Brown said he believes it is the "clear dysfunction in Albany" that caused many cities and counties to see continued declines in population, noting that New York is one of the highest-taxed states.

"All upstate cities have lost population. Buffalo is still the second-largest city in New York. That's why I've focused such attention on making Buffalo competitive," said Brown, referring to a series of property tax cuts and his proposal to hold the line on property taxes for three years.

The mayor predicted that if reforms that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is advancing in Albany are approved, population losses in Buffalo and other areas will be less in the coming decade.

Erie County Executive Chris Collins said the numbers are no surprise. He also pointed the finger at Albany.

"We are part of New York State, and New York State is the highest-taxed state in the nation," Collins said.

"If you're losing jobs, which is what we've done, you're going to lose population," the county executive said. "Albany doesn't seem to understand that, and frankly, still doesn't understand that."

In the Erie Niagara suburbs, Wheatfield was the biggest winner, growing by more than 28 percent. Clarence grew by 17 percent; Grand Island, 9.4 percent; Pendleton 5.7 percent; Orchard Park , 5.1 percent; and Amherst 5 percent.

Clarence Supervisor Scott A. Bylewski wasn't surprised by the 17.4 percent population increase in his town. He said many people are drawn to the town because of the appeal of the Clarence and Williamsville school districts.

"That makes our town more of a community that is attractive for people to come to," Bylewski said.

Amherst Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein cited schools and safety as reasons Amherst continues to grow, up 5 percent to 122,366 people.

"I think it confirms what we've been saying," he said, "that Amherst is a marvelous place to live."

Other suburbs saw a much different story.

Cheektowaga's population dropped by more than 6 percent; the Town of Tonawanda's went down 5.9 percent; and West Seneca's 2.6 percent.

The City of Lockport saw its numbers go down 5 percent, while Lackawanna dropped 4.8 percent.

Cheektowaga Supervisor Mary F. Holtz said there's a natural shift from first-ring suburbs like Cheektowaga and Tonawanda -- which each lost about 6 percent of their population -- to places like Amherst and Lancaster, which gained 5 and 6.6 percent, respectively.

She said an "older town" like hers has seen seniors pass away and family homes converted to rental properties or demolished. She remembered living in a Walden Avenue house with her grandmother upstairs and brother and sister downstairs.

"It was a different world," she said. "Now people want bigger lots, they want bigger yards, they want bigger houses [and] space to build."

Besides Buffalo, Niagara Falls was among the other big census losers.

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said his residents probably weren't disappointed with their city's loss of 5,468 people so much as they were relieved the numbers weren't worse.

"There's some speculation that we might actually have bottomed out a couple years ago and that we've stabilized since then," Dyster said.

While Niagara Falls' population decreased 9.8 percent, Niagara County's total decline was 3,375 people, or just 1.5 percent.

"That's the classic definition of sprawl," Dyster said. "Especially given the other [trends] we have in the economy, that's a particularly disturbing trend continuing into the future."

Edmund J. McMahon, a senior fellow at the Empire Center for New York State Policy in Albany, tried to find a bright spot.

The losses in Erie and Niagara counties actually weren't as bad as could have been expected, he said.

Take Buffalo out of the equation, in fact, and Erie County -- propelled by the suburban growth in Amherst, Clarence, Grand Island and others -- held its own, McMahon said.

"Actually, looking at the losses, you can say that for the region as a whole, it's not as bad as it was expected to be, because it isn't," McMahon said.

"It's not good to be losing people," he said, "but it's good to be losing fewer than you thought. That's something."

News Staff Reporters Susan Schulman, Patrick Lakamp and Mary B. Pasciak contributed to this report.

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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