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Prospectus Premiere event takes on an upbeat tone

Sounding a very upbeat tone among more than 300 of the area’s business leaders, the CEO of Western New York’s leading business organization Wednesday night said the region is finally seeing a turnaround in attitude, development and growth but cautioned that there’s still much work to be done.

Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, head of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, who noted the tendency of Western New Yorkers to question if what they are seeing is real, told the crowd at The Buffalo News’ Prospectus Premiere event that changes are happening that position the region for better times ahead.

“We are at an exciting time in Western New York,” she said, from new cooperation among local politicians and business leaders to support from the top of state government, from a broader economic development strategy to growth in jobs, personal income and even the population of young professionals.

Nevertheless, she said, “we have work to do.”

“This is not a mission-accomplished moment. I don’t want you to go home and relax,” said Gallagher-Cohen, who took the helm of the region’s largest business group last year after serving as chief executive officer of Visit Buffalo Niagara. “We have to commit to moving things forward.”

Gallagher-Cohen spoke at the 10th annual gathering in Salvatore’s Italian Gardens in Lancaster to celebrate the launch of this year’s Prospectus, an annual business outlook supplement produced by The News to examine the entire business community and its prospects for the year ahead.

Armed with a deck of slides, an array of economic statistics, results from a survey of CEOs across the state and even an impromptu survey of those present using text messages to respond to questions, Gallagher-Cohen laid out the changes and challenges that the region has seen.

“Should we be believing our own press releases about what’s happening in Buffalo?” she said, referring to the “working title” of her presentation. “Being the eternal optimist, I want to say yes. But we’re not off the hook yet.”

Still, there are reasons why “this time is different” and why there are real “game-changers.”

For the first time, she said, the community’s priorities are aligned for economic development. After multiple studies and a “really painful” process of engaging 250 stakeholders for the Regional Economic Development Council, there is now agreement over which industries to target – health and life sciences, tourism and advanced manufacturing – and over the means to do so – creating a culture of entrepreneurship, strengthening the workforce and emphasizing smart growth.

The region is also now benefiting from having a governor in Andrew M. Cuomo who is focused on helping Western New York, she said.

And rather than looking for a single big “silver bullet” to solve the region’s problems, Western New York now has a handful of large developments and an array of smaller ones, many of which are under the radar, such as the rock-climbing wall on a waterfront grain silo and the resurgence of Hertel Avenue.

“So for the first time, we have all these big things happening, but also small things,” she said. “And that kind of investment is incredibly important, because if we don’t believe in ourselves, no one else will.”

Additionally, the region is now appreciating the benefits of being next to Canada, and particularly the potential of being considered “a southern suburb” of Toronto. “The QEW is an artery to Buffalo. No one else has it, not Detroit, no one.”

Not everything is rosy, to be sure. Citing the results of a Siena poll of upstate business leaders, she noted that there is still pessimism about the outlook for the economy this year – though the informal survey in the room found attendees to be more hopeful. “As a group, you’re seeing the world a little bit better,” she said. “This must be a room full of cheerleaders.”

But the data itself is positive. For one thing, Buffalo didn’t suffer as many job losses as the rest of the country during the recession, and the region actually has more jobs now than in 2007 – led by Erie County.

Per capita personal income is also up, with Buffalo recording the second-highest growth rate in the country. And economists are now forecasting that, by 2020, “we completely close the gap between Buffalo and the rest of the country in income,” she said. “This is really exciting. This positions us for growth in the future.

Finally, the population of young adults between the ages of 20 and 34 is growing for the first time, both as people who left are moving back and also as younger people age up but don’t leave.

“This generation of young people want to live in places like Buffalo, with great natural resources, where things aren’t plastic, where people are real,” she said. “We actually will have young people who will replace us. Isn’t that fantastic? We can all retire.”

Still, there’s more to be done to improve the business climate, to keep people from leaving the state and feeling that New York is not business-friendly. And “this community has to come to terms with our negative brand,” she said. “The reality of being here is so much better. We now have a product worth selling.”

She urged those in attendance to engage in the process as much as possible, share the region’s successes with friends and family through social media, buy products and services from local vendors, and mentor young professionals.