Demography is destiny, goes the aphorism. That’s absolutely true for metropolitan areas that grapple with declining populations. Fewer taxpayers are left to pay for services; declining school enrollment leads to less state aid; local businesses cannot thrive if they can’t find enough workers to hire.
Those are just some of the implications of a shrinking population, a fact of life in many communities around the Rust Belt.
We in Buffalo Niagara are people who need people. If we could get another 100,000 or so to relocate here, many of our problems and challenges would look a lot less daunting.
Albany is not about to send us a wheelbarrow full of money to spend on a “Buffalo One Hundred Thousand” initiative; this is more of a do-it-yourself project. We have some ideas on how to get started.
Whether they are academics or pre-professionals who come to study at our colleges and universities, motivated entrepreneurs who wish to start their own businesses, or family people looking to put down roots in a new, safer community, immigrants are a necessary part of any plan to grow our population. They may come directly from abroad or move from the U.S. cities where they landed. Both are good.
Western New York is aging in place. The Buffalo Niagara Partnership estimates that 25 percent of our region’s residents will be eligible for retirement in the next seven to 10 years. That will strain our medical and social services infrastructures and leave more jobs going unfilled, which hamstrings our economy.
Individuals relocating from other countries tend to be on the younger side. They possess many of the attributes that we need in our community, including a desire to work hard, pay their share of taxes and grow businesses that create jobs. The image of migrants coming here to collect welfare checks is a lazy stereotype that doesn’t square with the facts.
Statistics compiled by the International Institute of Buffalo found that 29 of the top 50 cities in the U.S. lost population between 1960 and 1980. Fourteen of the cities reversed their loss, and in every case an increase in their immigrant population was a contributing factor.
“Any economic development strategy focused on attracting more workers that doesn’t include the foreign-born (refugees and immigrants) is missing a critical piece,” said Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute. “The foreign-born are younger, are a growing population, and are proven positive as workers, entrepreneurs, homeowners and taxpayers.”
Roll out the welcome mat
A Buffalo News story last July showed that primary and secondary migration is a big part of the booming economy in Toronto.
Our neighbor to the north has become a truly international city. Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz have stressed that they want our region to be a similarly welcoming place. That has not been easy under the Trump administration’s policies, but the efforts must continue.
Part of our region’s outreach plan should include promoting a welcoming atmosphere for individuals who may be subject to harmful prejudices elsewhere. Rolling out a public welcome mat will help others discover this area’s advantages, including affordable housing, short commute times and access to great cultural institutions.
Our greatest population need in 2020 is for more skilled employees to fill jobs, which is connected to economic growth.
“There is nothing more important than human capital,” said Buffalo Niagara Partnership President Dottie Gallagher. “We need to get organized as a community” to attract more talent here.
Part of that is overcoming the image of Buffalo as a forlorn outpost in the Rust Belt. While national and international media outlets in the past few years have discovered Buffalo and its “cool factor,” not everyone has gotten the message.
Gallagher says part of telling our region’s story to others is done admirably by the Visit Buffalo Niagara convention and visitors bureau. However, she points out that the bureau could do a lot more with additional funding. Under Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, the bureau gets 31% of the revenue from the county’s so-called bed tax, as opposed to 50% in previous administrations. Gallagher says the additional revenue would allow the bureau to supercharge its efforts. We agree; revenue from the bed tax should be restored to its original intent of promoting our region.
Lower taxes; higher wages
In addition to branding, there is the reality of our region’s high taxes and relatively stagnant wages.
“When someone is looking at moving here, they see the property taxes and it’s startling,” Gallagher noted.
Income taxes and school taxes are other parts of the equation that can make individuals or businesses think twice about relocating here. There are no quick fixes for this, but government officials need to keep this fact in mind when they are tempted to make expensive promises to constituents.
Another part of the equation for workers and families considering a move here is wages. Despite a tight job market and low unemployment, real wage and salary growth has topped 2% during only two of the last 10 years. If the head of a household is offered a job in Buffalo, he or she will have to evaluate not only the compensation, but what kind of job a spouse or partner might find here. If businesses want to attract more workers, they could start by offering better pay.
Pay people to move
One idea being tried elsewhere is the payment of bounties. Tulsa, Okla., and the state of Vermont, for example, have programs in which they offer up to $10,000 for employees who work remotely to move to their localities. The Vermont program is funded by the state; Tulsa’s is funded by a private foundation.
In Kansas, participants in a program called “Choose Topeka” can be handed up to $15,000 if they buy a home in the city and live and work there for a year. Baltimore, Md., gives a tax break to new home buyers in the city.
Most of the programs are new and it’s not yet clear what the returns on investment are, but it’s an idea worth considering for Buffalo. The city could make a pitch for state aid or grants from a foundation to start a pilot program.
Luring thousands of people here is a long-term project that should start right now. But set a goal – 100,000 has a nice ring – and put someone in charge. Otherwise, it’s just a dream.