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David Robinson: Better times in Buffalo Niagara, but we still can't keep up

These are heady days for the U.S. economy — and it's a pretty good time in the Buffalo Niagara region, too.

But good times across the country — where the stock market is hitting record highs and the economy is just months away from setting a record for the longest expansion in modern times — aren't lifting the Buffalo Niagara region to the same extent.

We're doing well, by Buffalo Niagara standards. But if you compare the region to the entire country, we're still lagging behind — just not by nearly as much as we have in the past.

• Our housing prices are hotter than they have been in decades. But the nation's housing market is even hotter.

• Our unemployment rate is at an 18-year low of 4.5 percent. But the national jobless rate is a few ticks lower.

• Our job growth since the end of the Great Recession has been the strongest the region has seen this century. But the job growth nationally has been more than twice as robust.

• Our population, after decades of exodus, has finally stabilized. But we're not growing, as much of the rest of the country is, depriving us of the powerful economic stimulus that comes from having more people move in. Local economists estimate that the lack of population growth means that our job market can't grow by much more than a modest 1 percent a year.

Yet there are some undeniable positives, too.

• Our wage growth since the end of the recession has roughly matched the pay increases nationally. Sadly, they aren't much to get excited about, averaging only 2.2 percent a year, or barely enough to keep pace with inflation.

• Our young people are sticking around more often, after rushing to take the first train out of town for decades. That's an encouraging sign.

• And there's finally a boomlet in building. Developers have rediscovered the region's old buildings and are turning them into trendy apartments, restaurants and even offices. Of course, that's nothing new nationally, where the trend has been going on for much longer.

"Things look and feel a lot better than they've been in my adult life," said Dottie Gallagher, the president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. "There's progress, and it's not insignificant. But we still have a lot of work to do."

Stock market hits a milestone, but not everyone is celebrating

John Slenker, the state Labor Department's regional economist in Buffalo, knows the local economy isn't growing as fast as the nation. But he argues that it is difficult to compare Buffalo with other places, or any two cities for that matter. Different locations, different climates, different populations all make the comparisons harder.

"We get hung up on comparing Buffalo with everyone else," he said. "I think we're better off comparing Buffalo with Buffalo."

And if you do that, you can make a convincing case that times are markedly better than they have been in quite some time.

"The overall economy — the overall expectations of people and their outlook — is so much better than at any time since before the Great Recession," Slenker said.

To be sure, some things are very different if you only look at Buffalo.

Our housing market, where home prices rose slowly and steadily and missed out entirely on the housing boom that helped precipitate the Great Recession, are rising rapidly now. Homes are in short supply and buyers abundant.

Since 2009, home prices nationally rose almost twice as fast as they did in Buffalo. But since 2016, the gap has closed almost entirely. U.S. median sale prices are up 14.2 percent since the end of 2015. In Buffalo Niagara, they're up 12.5 percent, according to National Association of Realtors data.

Our job market is tight, but it still isn't creating new jobs at a robust pace. Yet we've still gained 24,000 jobs since 2009, enough to recover all of the jobs that disappeared during the Great Recession and then some.

That may not sound like a big deal, but it is. It was the first time since at least the 1970s that the Buffalo Niagara economy went through a recession and then rebounded vigorously enough to regain the jobs it lost during the downturn. In other words, for the first time in decades, we managed to bounce back.

Maybe that's why it seems like the region's collective mood has taken a turn toward the upbeat, even as business still grumble about taxes and regulation, while the kind of good-paying jobs that are needed to convince young and talented people to move here still are in short supply.

"There's been a lot of positive change in the narrative," Gallagher said. "That's the beginning. But how do we take that, and take it to the next level and become an inbound destination?"

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