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Editorial: Buffalo is about to reap major benefits from years of planning and investment

In 2017, Buffalo will change.

Yes, it’s been changing for several years now, based on developments pushed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Rep. Brian Higgins. But that has been prologue, as Canalside has developed into a powerful urban attraction and the Buffalo Billion has seeded the ground for an economic garden that will blossom this year.

As The Buffalo News’ 2017 Prospectus section inside today’s paper documents, big things are about to happen. On the northern edge of downtown, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, already buzzing, will practically burst at its seams this year as it absorbs the new John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital and the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. When it’s all done, employment on the campus will reach 15,000 – more than double the 7,000 who worked there when its parent organization was formed in 2001.

And more is in the works.

On the other side of downtown, at a sharp bend in the Buffalo River, the SolarCity plant will bring high tech to South Buffalo. The Western Hemisphere’s biggest solar panel manufacturing plant will hum to life, hiring its first production workers early this year. When it reaches capacity, company leaders say the plant is expected to employ 500 manufacturing workers among a total Buffalo Niagara workforce of 1,460. This will make a difference, and it doesn’t factor in the supply and service businesses that are all but certain to arise in the arc of SolarCity’s light.

What is more, both of these developments, in the medical and solar power fields, are industries with legs. They will be here for the long haul.

The RiverBend project, which is SolarCity’s home, was conceived with a research and development component that will help to keep the plant not merely relevant, but on the cutting edge. The Medical Campus is already there, with the research divisions of the Conventus building and Roswell Park Cancer Institute, to name just a couple of its farsighted assets.

Together, these developments constitute a watershed event – a dividing line between what Buffalo was before them and what it became after. We know what it was before: a city down on itself, lacking friends in high places and shedding population. What it becomes after is a story yet to be told, one that to a great extent will depend upon continued nurturing by Albany and Washington.

To be sure, there will be challenges, though the kind that any struggling city would covet. Among them, for example, is transportation. The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority has renovated and expanded Metro Rail’s Allen/Medical Campus station in an effort to accommodate what is all but certain to be increased ridership. If there isn’t, the traffic jams and parking woes may be horrendous. The effort to encourage workers to take the train will be worth the trouble.

Even then, newcomers are flooding the Buffalo real estate market, drawn by the enticements of city living and filling residential space as soon as it comes on the market. That’s another key component of Buffalo’s resurgence. Without people, especially young people, cities wither. But attractions such as Canalside, a thriving restaurant and bar scene and a developing, well-paying high-tech economy serve as a magnet for millennials seeking not just employment but an appealing lifestyle. Here, they have found that.

It is indisputable: Buffalo has momentum, and as its economy grows, so does its self-confidence. But without planning and commitment, momentum can wane, causing the city to fall short of its remarkable potential or, even worse, to backslide.

That’s why state legislators – especially those from Western New York – need to advocate for Cuomo’s plan to expand on the Buffalo Billion with projects designed to support or build upon the original program. They can, and should, insist upon transparency and ethical conduct in how that new slug of $500,000 is spent, but there can be no doubt about the need to continue to nourish the city’s revival. Buffalo is up and walking, but it needs the kind of sustained and focused state assistance that put the Albany region back on its feet.

Still, Buffalo has a lot to celebrate in what is shaping up as its most remarkable year in a very long time.

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