The Buffalo Niagara "renaissance" is based more on good vibes than solid facts.
Yet there also is something to those positive feelings – and there is no doubt that the pallor of gloom that hovered over the region for decades has given way to a sense of hopefulness that, while hard to measure, still is a positive force that has long been lacking here.
In a nutshell, we're doing pretty well. But plenty of other places are doing better – some of them a lot better – and that means the region still is playing catch-up to the rest of the country.
We're adding jobs, but very slowly. Hiring is about twice as fast nationally as it is here, and that means twice as many opportunities for people elsewhere as they'd find here.
Unemployment, which averaged 6.1% from 1990 to 2015, is down to 4.4%. That's forming a healthy economic base. But jobless rates are even a little lower nationally, so we still have some catching up to do.
But the upbeat vibe is apparent in all the renovation projects that are turning old buildings in Buffalo into trendy apartments. You see it in the boom in craft breweries.
Most of all, you see it in our housing market, where median sale prices are up about 5% over the past year – a pace that is right on par with the nationwide gains. We're keeping up with the Joneses there, and that's something new to Buffalo, where home prices have pretty much just managed to keep pace with inflation for decades.
At a time when the affordability of housing is becoming a bigger issue nationwide, where the median sale price is around $274,000, our median price is around $160,000. So even though our incomes are lower here and the recent jump in prices has squeezed buyers, the lower cost of housing makes affordability less of an issue here than it is in many places. That's a good thing.
Then there's the long-term picture. We have experienced honest-to-goodness growth since the Great Recession ended a decade ago – and that's a big deal for a region that, in the postwar era, has tended to fall hard during recessions and only partly recover before getting blasted by the next downturn.
"We're better than we've been," said Timothy Glass, the state Labor Department's regional economist in Buffalo.
That's apparent in all the "help wanted" signs outside local businesses. The job market has tightened so much that some companies are taking out billboards in hopes of finding qualified workers to fill their openings.
"It's harder and harder to find workers," Glass said. That's because baby boomers are retiring faster than young workers are entering the labor force. The result is a job market where unemployment is dropping, not so much because job creation is going gangbusters, but more because our population is stagnant and the supply of potential workers is shrinking.
"This area is a little older than the rest of New York State," Glass said. "So they're retiring quicker here than they are in the rest of the state and the nation."
So we have a people problem. And that puts a brake on our growth.
"It makes it challenging," said Jaison Abel, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in Buffalo.
"It makes it difficult for firms that want to come into a region," he said. "When you've got a declining workforce, that's a factor that would be a hindrance."
Despite the "help wanted" signs, Buffalo Niagara's job growth has been slowing over the past three years. If you look at the set of data that most economists consider to be the most accurate – albeit less timely – it shows that job growth here slowed to a trickle in 2017, grew modestly in 2018 and, according to a report last month from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, stagnated again late last year.
It's pretty much the same across most of upstate New York. The sluggish job growth over the past three or four decades has prompted many workers to flee. It doesn't help that it is hard to convince people to move upstate, especially since that usually takes high-quality, good-paying jobs that have long been in short supply. That holds true for their spouses, too.
Even so, there has been progress. The decadeslong population decline has stabilized and the flurry of new development downtown is a welcome change. Those are the things that the positive vibe is built upon.
But the numbers still have to catch up.
Story topics: Prospectus 2020