They almost forgot. Big cities, big careers, even big dreams will do that to you.
The friends almost forgot Buffalo. Not the area, the food, their families, or even each other. They almost forgot the feel. The feel of their hometown, the feel of their everyday friendship.
“I had forgotten how much it made me happy to see my friends more than twice a year,” said Lisa Cavanagh, sitting on an upholstered bench in the seventh-floor lobby of the Marriott HarborCenter.
She was awaiting lunch with her best friends, Kristin Lonergan and Andrea Bozek.
The three women, all 32 and dressed stylishly in dark jeans and blouses on a Saturday afternoon, grew up together in Williamsville before heading off after college.
Cavanagh, after graduating from the University at Buffalo, split the last decade working as a financial analyst in New York City and in Austin, Texas. Lonergan, with an undergraduate degree from John Carroll University and an MBA from DePaul University, moved up the ranks working for banks in Chicago. Bozek, who earned a political science degree from John Carroll, has lived in Washington, D.C., for the last 10 years and is one of the top Republican communications operatives on Capitol Hill.
Now, with senior titles and careers on a skyward trajectory, they are back, and among the growing number of millennials calling Buffalo home.
“We had a great group of friends in Austin,” said Cavanagh, who moved to Clarence with her husband, Tom, last year when she took a job as a senior financial analyst at LocalEdge. “But it’s just not the same.”
Bozek, who is communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, nodded in agreement.
“It’s not the same as being surrounded by people you’ve known since childhood,” she said. “There’s a deeper bond that can’t compare.”
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The friends started recasting the last decade, a period marked by occasional visits and frequent texts and pep-talk phone calls as they grew from young adults into young executives. When one had trouble with a car, or an apartment, or needed some support as a woman in the male-dominated industries of banking, finance and politics, they called.
They still do.
“We have pump-up, pep-talk conversations: ‘You asked for this, don’t be apologetic,’ ” Lonergan said.
She moved to Buffalo in 2014 for a job as a vice president/relationship manager for First Niagara Bank, where she works with commercial customers.
Lonergan and Bozek have been friends since age 3. They met when Lonergan, her older brother and their dog, a blond collie named Mandy, snuck into the home Bozek’s parents were building next door. Bozek’s mom, Kathy, stopped by with little Andrea to check on the progress – and found Kristin and Mandy in the basement. (Kristin’s brother snuck out.)
The girls grew close, with Cavanagh befriending Bozek in middle school and Lonergan by high school.
“The bonds are deep,” Lonergan said. “The bonds are deep.”
Like Austin on the rise
A fireplace flickers behind them as the women look out the tall windows of the lobby. They see Canalside and later, when they shift across the room for a lunch of wedge salads in the Panorama on Seven restaurant, a clear view of lower Main Street and the newly built Phillips Lytle law firm headquarters.
“When you see before and after photos of what’s going on around here, this was an ugly surface parking lot,” Lonergan said, referring to the plot of land where HarborCenter sits.
They get to talking about everything attractive about the Buffalo they’ve returned to (and not so much the Buffalo they left): The new restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries.
“You don’t just go to that same restaurant you did with your parents when you were 15,” Cavanagh said. “There are so many places to go now, it feels like an up-and-coming city. It reminds me of Austin in 2010. People had heard about Austin, but it didn’t blow up until maybe 2012. If feels like that a little bit here.”
To that point: Austin’s population grew by more than 15 percent from 2010 to 2014. Western New York’s population isn’t showing that growth, but recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the number of 25- to 34-year-olds living here is up nearly 22 percent over the last seven years. That’s good news but not dazzling; it in part reflects a number of young people who may have wanted to leave but couldn’t find jobs elsewhere because of the 2008 recession. But combined with the increased cultural energy and economic activity in Buffalo, it’s a positive sign.
“What I’m hearing more of now is people who are not living in the market and are actively trying to come back home,” says Buffalo Niagara Partnership CEO Dottie Gallagher-Cohen.
She has seen an influx of résumés from Western New York ex-pats when the organization posts a job. She attributes the dynamic to two factors. First, people are hearing about a revitalized Western New York through a wave of positive press for organizations like 43North and its business-plan competition; the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; and widespread development.
Second, former Western New Yorkers are witnessing it.
“People are coming home to visit family and friends, seeing the physical transformation for themselves, and believing that there really is opportunity here,” Gallagher-Cohen said.
Catching the electricity
Think of it like watching a child grow: If you see the kid everyday, you may not notice the changes. But go away for a long time and come back, and the differences are stark.
Lonergan knows that.
In her First Niagara job, she spends at least half of her time out of the office, meeting with business owners and managers. She’s also a member of Leadership Buffalo’s Rising Leaders program, which has given her insight into development across a region that is very different from the one she left in the early 2000s.
“You can feel the electricity and the confidence in things that are going on,” she said. “It used to be a place would open and (people would say), ‘OK, I’d give it six months and it’s going to close.’ ”
Cavanagh added, “It’s like, ‘Why did they do this? Why did they put that there?’ ”
“Now things are just building and growing,” Lonergan said. “I think it’s interesting with focusing on medical and entrepreneurs, the refugee population. We’re becoming an eclectic, specialized community. Buffalo is starting to get a little bit of hype as a medical community. It’s getting hype as a place for entrepreneurs to thrive. We have a lot of avenues for people to develop and create.”
But it’s not just professional opportunity that will lure talent back.
For the smartest and sharpest millennials, big cities offer plenty of opportunity. Cavanagh was on that track in Austin. Lonergan was in Chicago. Bozek still is in D.C., where she commutes Monday to Friday for her fast-paced job with a single goal: to “protect the Senate majority.”
When The News accompanied her on an autumn Monday to D.C., Bozek’s day went like this: She took a 5:45 a.m. Southwest flight from Buffalo to Baltimore, then a $7 Amtrak train from the airport to D.C.’s Union Station. Starbucks in hand, she was at her office inside the Ronald Reagan Republican Center minutes after 8 a.m.
By 9 a.m., New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan – a Democrat – had announced her candidacy for the Senate. That thrust Bozek and her staff of three into fast action. Within an hour, they launched a website assailing “Governor Gridlock” and sketched out plans for a video that, among other things, would show jammed traffic (or “gridlock”) on an expressway in New Hampshire. They were pounding home a message for Granite State voters: Your Republican incumbent, Kelly Ayotte, will get the job done. But send your Democratic governor to the Senate, and she’ll simply lock up progress.
That was just the first half of the morning. The rest of Bozek’s day was dotted with a series of conference calls with campaigns around the country, conversations with her counterparts who work directly for the Senate (Bozek’s job is political, not taxpayer-funded), coffee with a D.C. reporter, a meeting with a CNN producer, and check-ins through the day with a new employee.
It’s a heady, whirlwind day, but for Bozek, it’s typical. Directly before this, she was communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. That makes her the only person to hold the top communications job for both organizations – a status that, especially if the NRSC is successful in the 2016 election cycle, will position her nicely to open her own consulting firm or accept a private-sector position.
If she does that, she’d like to do it in Western New York.
“The pull to Buffalo is very strong,” said Bozek, who has been traveling home on weekends for the past year.
She describes D.C. as a “bubble.”
“People think that H.R. 2200” – a hypothetical bill in Congress – “is the most important thing that’s going on,” she said. “But when you come to Buffalo, they just want to talk about the Bills.”
That’s no small point. The realness of her hometown – where the relevance of the Bills far outweighs a politically charged bill on the Hill – is important to Bozek. So are the daily conveniences: In Buffalo, rush hour is still measured in minutes, and civility comes with a bit of charm.
“This sounds kind of silly,” Bozek said, “but people hold the door open for you at Wegmans and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ ”
“And smile at you,” Cavanagh added.
“That does not happen in D.C.,” Bozek said. “That does not happen in Manhattan.” She looked at Lonergan and smiled. “Maybe in Chicago?”
Maybe. But when Lonergan started her job with First Niagara in the Larkin Building, she noticed a simple difference before she even reached her office.
“I’m used to walking right up the elevator, you wait to get on, and you’re gone,” she said. “But people were standing back with their Tim Hortons, letting women on first.”
“That would never happen in Washington. People would trample over you,” Bozek said.
She laughed and added, “We want our kids to be polite.”
None of the three friends have children yet, but they’re thinking about their future families. All three are with Buffalo guys – “which I think speaks to the quality,” says Bozek, who is engaged to Republican political operative Chris Grant.
Lonergan is dating Greg Arnold, a Williamsville native who works for his family business, Zipline Golf. Cavanagh’s husband, Tom, who works in sales, also is from Williamsville.
“When I think about raising a family in Washington, obviously it’s very expensive, but it’s also not a close-knit community,” Bozek said. “There’s no better place to raise a family than in Western New York, by our families and our friends. To have that support network I think is going to be really meaningful.”
Lisa and Tom Cavanagh considered buying a home and settling in Austin, but decided against it. The neighborhoods didn’t seem quite right. The schools weren’t up to their standards.
Something didn’t feel quite like … home.
“It had to be Buffalo,” Lisa said. “I think it’s because we had such a wonderful childhood. And our best friends are the people we grew up with. That’s who we’re still best friends with. I want that for my children.”