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COMMENTARY

Robinson: This could be the start of something big

David Robinson

This could be the start of something big.

Despite all the attention focused on the Buffalo Billion and high-profile projects on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the reality is those big initiatives have had little impact on the Buffalo Niagara economy, beyond a short-term bump in construction employment.

That will start to change in 2017.

SolarCity plans to start making solar panels at its RiverBend factory, bringing the first wave of manufacturing jobs to a project that ultimately could employ nearly 1,500 people by 2019. The new John R. Oishei Children's Hospital will open late this year and so will the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, giving a new shot of activity to a fast-growing medical campus.

And that's just the beginning.

[See the rest of Prospectus 2017: Unveiling the New Buffalo]

In the next year and beyond, there will be further hiring from the Athenex drug factory in Dunkirk, the development of a network of suppliers and service providers for SolarCity and job growth at the IBM data analytics hub downtown.

Those projects could give an added boost to an economy that, over the past two years, has started to grow a little bit faster. The Buffalo Niagara economy added 3,800 jobs last year, according to the latest state Labor Department data. In 2014, the increase was 2,900. Unemployment is down to about 5 percent, not quite as low as it was before the recession, but close.

Home prices have been rising, up 5.6 percent in the 12 months that ended in September, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency. That's just a tad slower than the 6.05 percent growth in home prices across the country – and an extraordinary change in the region's long trend of sluggish real estate values.

Over the past 25 years, home prices nationwide grew about a third faster than they did here, so simply keeping pace with the rest of the country would be a huge change for the better in the Buffalo Niagara region.

If the economy holds up and that core growth continues, the new projects could pump up the economy even more.

Add in a wave of retirements by aging Baby Boomers whose jobs will have to be filled by new workers, and there should be plenty of hiring going on in 2017.

"It's creating opportunities," said John Slenker, the state Labor Department's regional economist in Buffalo. "We have lots of jobs."

Put it all together, and it's building a new sense of hope in the region. Even local business leaders are feeling it. Never in the past decade have local CEOs felt more upbeat about the future, according to a survey released last week by the Siena Research Institute in Albany.

That optimism has been growing steady, roughly coinciding with the launch of the Cuomo administration's Buffalo Billion economic development initiative, which was designed to be both a big fiscal stimulus and a psychological jolt for Western New Yorkers who had grown skeptical and cynical after decades of economic decline.

A third of the local CEOs surveyed said they felt the business climate in the Buffalo Niagara region was getting better. Back in 2013, only 20 percent saw improvement.

In fact, Buffalo is a beacon of optimism compared with upstate's other major cities, the Siena researchers found. Less than a quarter of Albany's CEOs see the business climate getting better there. It's less than 15 percent in both Rochester and Syracuse.

To be sure, though, the Buffalo Niagara economy still has issues. The pace of our job growth last year remains tepid and was less than half the national average. If that longstanding trend continues, it will make it hard for the region to attract workers from elsewhere and to keep our young people – who have been a growing part of the region's population over the last five years as optimism has built – from moving away again, simply because it's easier to find a good job in other markets.

Good jobs. Not just any jobs. That's the key. And the state's unprecedented investments in Buffalo are geared toward creating jobs that pay better than average.

There seems to be progress there, too. Real personal incomes in the Buffalo Niagara region grew by a little more than 4 percent in 2015, the fastest increase for any single year in more than two decades. From 2012 to 2015, real incomes here grew faster than they did nationally during three of those four years. Canisius College economists George Palumbo and Mark Zaporowski think incomes last year once again grew a little faster than inflation, although they think the 1 percent increase in real incomes here will be less than half of the nationwide growth.

With Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposing a $500 million follow-up to the Buffalo Billion, the state is poised to throw another log on the fire, just as starts to really take off.

"We have a historic opportunity," said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership's president. "We have to do everything we can to accelerate the momentum, not stop it."

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