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After years of brain drain, young people are moving back to Buffalo

The decades-long brain drain among young people in the Buffalo Niagara region is turning into a brain gain.

At the forefront are Millennials like Steven Poland and Seamus Gallivan, who came back to Buffalo to start their own ventures after almost a decade away.

It continued with people like Nick and Amanda Quaranto, who left Boston and are telecommuting from Buffalo, even though they work for companies in Chicago and California.

Julie Molloy is part of the trend, too. It took a year of looking, but she snagged a hard-to-find branding design job at a Buffalo marketing firm after graduating from Buffalo State College.

And so is Meghan Hess, who landed a communications job just three months after graduating from Mercyhurst University.

They’re part of a trend that emerged from the ashes of the Great Recession and – at least for the time being – has stemmed the decades-long exodus of young people from the Buffalo Niagara region in search of better jobs and brighter futures. A combination of available jobs here and soaring costs elsewhere is fueling the change.

Since 2006, the number of people between the ages of 20 and 34 – often called Millennials – in the Buffalo Niagara region has jumped by a little more than 10 percent, according to Census Bureau statistics. And it comes at a time when the region’s total population shrank by almost 1 percent.

The uptick in the number of young people in the Buffalo Niagara region during that six-year period from 2006 to 2012 – the most recent data available – has been among the strongest among all of the counties in New York and easily exceeds national growth in that age group.

“It’s good to have the influx of younger folks,” said Gary Keith, regional economist at M&T Bank, who has been studying the trend.

The steady exodus of young people has long been part of the brain drain that has hurt the region’s economy by sending many of its talented college graduates and young workers elsewhere to seek their fortunes. From 1990 to 2006, Erie County’s population between the ages of 20 and 34 plunged by 28 percent, according to census data.

“This is the future leadership of our community,” said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.“If you lose a generation, we’re going to have a serious issue in our economy. So to see that change, for us is a really great sign.”

Greener grass here

Keith sees two main causes for the bump in young people: The Great Recession battered many high-flying cities that had been powerful magnets for the Buffalo Niagara region’s young people. At the same time, the local economy absorbed a much milder blow. So instead of there being more opportunities in other places, there was a three-year period from 2008 to 2010 when the Buffalo Niagara job market was much healthier than once-booming places like Phoenix, Denver, Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., and Las Vegas.

“It was a case of the grass not being greener in other places,” Keith said.

The number of people of all ages moving from the Buffalo Niagara region to other states tumbled by 27 percent from 2006 to 2010, according to IRS data. “When the jobs grow, fewer people go,” Keith said.

At the same time, the Millennials are a growing part of the population across the country, so part of the uptick in Buffalo Niagara merely reflects the size of that generation, Keith said.

E. Frits Abell, a local entrepreneur who oversees separate Facebook groups for expatriates and Buffalo natives who have moved back, said the cost of living also has become a bigger factor as the economy struggled and then recovered only slowly.

“Major cities like New York have become so inaccessible for young people – for the creative class or, basically, for anyone who isn’t super rich,” he said.

So for Millennials who can find jobs in Buffalo – which Forbes magazine recently named as America’s most affordable city – even a lower-paying job can be more lucrative here.

“If you can get a good opportunity in Buffalo, you’re going to be better off because it’s less expensive,” Abell said.

Millennials, as a whole, tend to be attracted to urban settings, and Abell said he thinks Buffalo’s walkable neighborhoods and the recent spurt in development are strong selling points.

“There’s a groundswell in Buffalo,” said Gallivan, who left Buffalo in 2000 and returned nine years later to start a community services group. “It’s not the same Buffalo that I left, and I feel there’s a unique place for me in it.”

But Keith, the bank economist, warns that the window that opened to bring Millennials back to Buffalo could close as the national economy strengthens. Already, job growth across the country last year was four times stronger than it was in the Buffalo Niagara region. And in Houston, it was nearly nine times greater.

“The acid test is whether this will continue as the U.S. economy heats up,” Keith said.

Gallagher-Cohen agrees, and she hopes the development along the Buffalo waterfront and at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the University at Buffalo, when combined with the state’s Buffalo Billion initiative, will spur the job creation need to keep attracting Millennials.

“This is only a temporary tailwind here unless we pick up the pace,” she said. “We’ve got a lot riding on the momentum we’ve got going here.”

The lucky one

Julie Molloy’s frustration was approaching the tipping point.

The 2010 graduate of Buffalo State College had a degree in communication design and wanted to find a job doing branding design in the Buffalo Niagara region. There was only one problem: Those jobs are few and far between here, so Molloy, a 25-year-old Batavia native, spent a year after her graduation hunting for a job, building her own website and doing freelance work.

“My dreams were pretty lofty when I graduated,” Molloy said. “There were very, very few opportunities that were popping up for the type of creative work that I wanted to do ... I really thought I was going to need to leave to make the career for myself that I knew I wanted.”

Then, in April 2011, Molloy’s luck turned. A college friend who interned at Block Club, a Buffalo branding and marketing agency, recommended Molloy for an opening at the firm. She interviewed and got the job.

“I’m so very grateful with the luck that I did have. I’m just so happy that I stayed,” said Molloy, who lives in Allentown and loves to be able to walk to the neighborhood’s commercial strip. “Buffalo is an amazing place to be at the age I am now.”

The entrepreneur

When Steven Poland left Kenmore to attend college at age 18, his sights were clearly set on other places.

“I didn’t have an interest in coming back to Buffalo at that time,” he said.

So Poland spent most of the next decade on the move, spending time in West Lafayette, Ind., where he picked up his business degree from Purdue University. He ran a technology startup in Denver until the tech boom went bust. He worked in Houston on two different occasions.

He managed a sports bar in Boston. “But I wasn’t making enough money to pay my rent,” he said. “I came home after that because I was broke.”

After a couple of months doing Web design work in Buffalo, he was on the move again, this time to Austin, Texas, for two years. In 2006, he was ready to move back home for good.

“I had to go away to all these different cities and explore to understand what a great city Buffalo is,” said Poland, 34. “My perception changed. I just fell deeper and deeper in love with the city.”

He landed a job at Synacor Inc., a Buffalo company that provides Internet content. He left after 1½ years and since then has dabbled in a number of technology ventures. His current project is Act Away, a charades game app for the iPhone that he is developing.

“We’ve been working on it for a year. We have a prototype, but we’re still doing a lot of testing,” said Poland, who’s trying to raise $300,000 to fund the venture.

“I think there are opportunities here,” he said. “You’ve just got to sell yourself, and you’ve got to hunt down those opportunities.”

The telecommuter

When North Tonawanda native Nick Quaranto and his wife, Amanda, graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2010, they headed off to Boston. “We just decided we didn’t see ourselves in Boston,” Nick Quaranto said. But after a couple of years in Boston, that changed. “At that point, we decided we wanted to move back to be closer to family and to start a family,” he said. “The cost of living in Buffalo is much more reasonable, and we had the support of family.”

But making the move wasn’t without risk. Nick, a programmer, had a trial contract to work with Basecamp, a Chicago technology firm that would allow him to work from his home. That job eventually turned into a permanent position.

Amanda, 26, had a tougher transition. An Erie, Pa., native, she was without work for about nine months before landing a job with an Amherst software company. She now works as a deployment engineer for Engine Yard, a San Francisco-based technology company that also allows her to work from home.

“We’ve kind of found this serendipitous place,” said Nick, 26, who last year co-founded Cowork Buffalo, which runs a Main Street site that provides telecommuters, freelancers and the self-employed a place to work without having to rent an office.

“There’s a lot of companies in the software industry that allow you to work remotely,” he said. “There’s more and more technology that lets people work remotely, and there’s more and more going on. I think it has nowhere to go but up.”

The career changer

Gallivan “joined the brain drain” after he graduated from Canisius College in 2000. Gallivan, who grew up in Kenmore, worked for a minor-league baseball team in Clearwater, Fla., and three in Texas, eventually rising to director of ballpark entertainment and promotion coordinator for Corpus Christi, Texas.

“I never wavered in my belief that I would eventually move back to Buffalo,” Gallivan said. “But I believe everyone who can leave town really should to see who they are and what they are.”

For Gallivan, the signal that it was time to return home came during a phone call with his sister and her children. After being away for six years, “it was just like someone hit me in the heart,” he said. “It hit so hard.”

So, after the 2009 season, Gallivan headed home, leaving Texas on a Friday and arriving in Buffalo in time to tailgate before the Buffalo Bills home opener. What he didn’t have was a job.

So he started The Good Neighborhood, a Buffalo-based organization that promotes causes related to the community good.

“I left the comforts of salary and benefits to carve my own niche here,” said Gallivan, who turned 35 last September. “I’m no shining success story, but I’m getting there, relying in great part on my network and the fact that people seem to look out for each other here more than in other places.”

The graduate

Meghan Hess graduated from Mercyhurst University less than two years ago, but she’s already made her connections pay off.

The 2012 graduate and West Seneca native did a pair of internships in public relations before graduation, and she landed a job at 19 Ideas, a Buffalo marketing and communications firm. The job started off as a part-time position but turned into a full-time job two months later.

“With the job I have now, there was never a job posting,” she said. “It’s all about the connections and who you know.”

And besides, Hess said, moving back to Buffalo was the fiscally responsible thing to do, especially when she could move back in with her parents.

“I couldn’t imagine moving to New York City after graduation and having a high cost of living with the high amount of student loans that I have,” she said.

Hess also appreciates the opportunities to expand her career and gain experience within the Buffalo Niagara region. That includes serving on the marketing committees for the Taste of Buffalo festival and the Explore & More Children’s Museum. “How many opportunities like that are available for a 23-year-old?” she asked.