Buffalo needed a turnaround, economically and socially, and it got it. What it needed even more, though, was to become attractive to young people, without whom the city would become progressively older and unable to support its revival.
Happily, Buffalo got that, too; it was part of the package. As Buffalo became more economically progressive and socially interesting, millennials noticed. Then they started arriving, in such numbers that their growth in Buffalo has outstripped that of both the country and most of the Rust Belt.
The Buffalo Niagara region’s population of young adults between the ages of 20 and 34 has grown by 8.3 percent since 2010. It’s a remarkable expansion that is built upon the bones of a remarkable city, fleshed out by a creative state economic program and a thriving social scene that includes Larkinville, Canalside, an explosion of craft breweries and many other attractions.
In a survey of Rust Belt cities, only Rochester’s millennial population grew faster, at 8.8 percent. Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit and Syracuse all posted lower growth rates, while the millennial population in Dayton, Ohio, fell by 1.6 percent.
It’s a crucial turnaround for what appeared not so long ago to be a stagnant region anchored by an aging and declining city. Young people not only bring vitality but longevity to the area. They act as magnets for others of their age group who are looking to locate in a lively place where opportunities are expanding.
As Howard Zemsky, the Buffalo developer who heads Empire State Development, flatly observed about the influx of millennials: “Without that, we have no future, period. It’s not just a nice feel-good thing. It’s an important economic development thing.”
These newcomers are well educated and want to live somewhere that values their skills and is, not to put too fine a point on it, a fun place to be. That’s what Buffalo has become, and that transformation is not even complete. SolarCity is yet to open. Part II of the Buffalo Billion stands to build on the state’s original, farsighted investment in the city and region.
It was always crucial, once Buffalo started building momentum, not to let it wane. Strength and weakness both produce more of the same. The city needed to continue growing. Its attraction to millennials shows that it is succeeding at that, offering reason to believe that trend will continue, at least for a period.
More work needs to be done, especially in the area of education. What Buffalo wants most from these millennials, besides their success, is for them to put down roots, deciding that it’s a good place to stay and raise a family.
That won’t happen in a school district where too few students graduate and where too many of those who do leave without the skills needed for future success. Superintendent Kriner Cash appears to be making progress in the mission of improving education in Buffalo, but it needs to accelerate if Buffalo is to capitalize on the influx of young residents.
Still, those people have discovered what many have long known: Buffalo has long been one of the country’s best-kept secrets. Now, thankfully, the secret is getting out.