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Behind the Buffalo Billion

UB Regional Institute and Regional Council Lay Economic Planning Foundation for Buffalo’s Resurgence

While Buffalo is riding a wave of new investment, state and community leaders say the groundwork was laid by a highly collaborative regional plan. © University at Buffalo, photo by Douglas Levere

by Rachel Teaman

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After weathering decades of hard times, Buffalo is on the rebound – in a big way. Governor Andrew Cuomo has put a billion dollars behind it, cranes are a familiar part of the skyline, the waterfront is hip and lively, neighborhoods once forgotten are coming to life, and the positivity on the streets is contagious (“Buffalove” bumper sticker anyone?). Though far from finished, Buffalo’s “comeback story” has had its run in the national press several times over now, and other parts of the state and nation are starting to take notice.

Yet the backstory to this economic renaissance is what has regional and state leaders most confident in Buffalo’s future. And it’s all in a plan.

In an above-and-beyond response to Cuomo’s decentralized economic development model – introduced in 2011 through a statewide planning competition – Western New York has essentially turned conventional economic development on its head and cultivated a level of unity never seen before for the five-county region. Indeed, it was this very plan and process that inspired the Governor’s billion-dollar bet and is now driving the recent burst of private investment in the region. 

Howard Zemsky, the Buffalo developer who helped lead that planning effort and now heads economic development for all of New York State, refers to the new plan and process as a “sea change” and the foundation of the region’s economic vitality. “Without that, you just have money, you just have some pioneers. Those are very different things – they don’t make a shared community.”

Dean Robert Shibley and the Buffalo School’s UB Regional Institute (UBRI) have been a part of the process from the start, leading public participation, mapping economic data, and developing and now implementing the plan and its subsequent Buffalo Billion investment strategy. 

Says Shibley:

“In over 30 years of planning engagements in the region, I don’t think we’ve worked on an effort with more significance in terms of the opportunity presented to the region to change the game. The alignment of vision from the Governor down to the grassroots to empower a new set of voices gave us a new conversation and, ultimately, a plan with consensus and investment from all sectors.”

For a region that had become accustomed to empty promises, Buffalo is seeing results. Projects that were just concepts two years ago are today off the ground. Economic indicators from wages to developable brownfields are ticking upward. State investments have leveraged more than $3 billion in private sector investment and the creation of more than 7,000 new jobs in Western New York since 2011.

With support from the UB Regional Institute, the WNY Regional Economic Development Council has engaged thousands in building and now implementing the region’s economic plan.

The model has worked out so well that the Govenor has designed a similar process to refocus regional economic development plans across upstate New York - from Rochester to Utica - enlisting UBRI to assist with the research and provide decision-making tools and strategic planning guidance.

No longer a spectator sport

A key tenet of the Governor’s new Regional Economic Development Councils, which would serve as the new economic development governance bodies for each of the state’s 10 regions, was inclusion. The Councils were to be diversely representative across all measures. Western New York took that charge to heart. 

Soon after the competition’s announcement, in late summer 2011, the Governor gave the region a new team of local leaders with fresh perspectives. Co-chaired by Zemsky, the developer behind Buffalo’s Larkin District, and UB President Satish K. Tripathi, the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council engaged emergent leaders active at the ground level – for example, the head of a West Side housing agency, a Niagara County farm and vineyard owner, the CEO of a manufacturer from Chautauqua County, and an African-American small business owner. 

Dean Robert Shibley (left) and UBRI Director Laura Quebral (center) have worked closely with Howard Zemsky, president and CEO of Empire State Development (right), and the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council to build a transformative economic plan for Buffalo and the five-county region. Photo by Mahan Mehrvarz (MArch ’16)

“The people who were around the table were to some extent picked to break the mold,” says Zemsky, whose passion for the region grew out of his work with Buffalo’s historic buildings and the communities around them. “Economic development had been a spectator sport for too long. The Regional Councils got people off the sidelines and into the game.”

Christina Orsi, who directed the Western New York office of Empire State Development during the plan’s development, agrees. “Historically, economic development in Western New York was led by a handful of CEOs, a closed group making the big decisions, or influencing them,” says Orsi, who now heads UB’s Office of Economic Development. “The Governor broke that completely open with the Regional Councils.”

Building on the base

Western New York was hardly new to this game. During the previous two decades, Buffalo had built an arsenal of nationally recognized physical plans – many of these guided by Shibley and his Urban Design Project – that called for a return to the urban core, reconnections to the waterfront, and the revitalization of the city’s neighborhoods. Also, coincident with the Council’s effort was Buffalo’s zoning code rewrite (its first in 50 years), a sustainable development planning initiative for Erie and Niagara Counties, and several town and village comprehensive plans. 

Moreover, Buffalo was already showing signs of rebirth. Its Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus was a hotbed for health sciences research and technology transfer, with UB’s plans to build its new medical school there well under way. Developers were beginning to convert warehouses into lofts by the handful (and today they are filling them up). Buffalo’s West Side was the center of a national garden festival and an urban farming movement. Beyond Buffalo, Niagara Falls was in the midst of a major restoration of its falls-view park with progress on long-vacant monoliths, such as the Rainbow Center Mall.

This economic plan “came out of a history of increasingly more sophisticated planning foundations and is rooted in the community’s notion of how we define ourselves,” says Shibley, adding that the deftness in planning also came from community nonprofits that had developed into “juggernauts of capacity” as advocates and participants in past regional plans.

A new frame of reference

The region’s newest effort dug deep into this planning history and canvassed the region’s landscape to shake loose proven planning concepts and development models that were working well for pockets of the community. 

The plan’s strategies also drew heavily from economic data and research, illustrated and presented through public meetings and online forums. The tactic turned political flashpoints into common sense. 

Consider smart growth, an issue that has remained unpopular despite the region’s notorious challenges in sprawl (its declining population dispersed across 166 square miles of newly urbanized land between 1960 and 2000). UBRI Director Laura Quebral (MUP ‘06) says the maps were striking and nearly neutralized this issue. “No one could really deny it. When you saw it on the map, it was completely intuitive.”

In the end, the plan proposed a combination of investments in industry clusters of strategic strength – among them advanced manufacturing, agriculture, tourism, health and life sciences – and “economic enablers” including workforce development, entrepreneurship and smart growth. The plan prioritized projects for state funding based not only on job creation and return-on-investment but on the degree to which they reached underserved populations, promoted smart growth, targeted young adults and improved the region’s image. 

As such, community leaders say the plan provides a new frame of reference for economic development – one that encompasses issues traditionally relegated to “community development” and makes them central drivers of economic investment. Says Zemsky: “We gave credibility to ideas that had been floating around for a while. This community wasn’t embracing sustainable, smart growth. But now we have a plan that highlights it as a core principle. That was a big leap. We all talk about it, argue over it, but this is now central to how we think about our future.”

Add Shibley:

"Thie project brought together physical, land use and social considerations within a framework that everybody can put their hands up, and that's economic development."

Aaron Bartley, founding director of People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo, attributes this new perspective to the inclusive process. “There were advocates for all those constituencies at the table. And the effort’s leadership understood that the culture of a place and the quality of its workforce is economic development.”

‘A resounding vote of confidence’

Then came the Buffalo Billion, announced by Cuomo in January 2012, just two months after Western New York earned “Best Plan” in the statewide REDC competition. Quebral says it immediately elevated the plan to a higher plane. “We needed someone who said, ‘we don’t just believe in it, we’re going to invest in it.’ That was catalytic.”

In his 2015 commencement address to Buffalo School graduates, many of whom have participated in Buffalo's city-making work, Zemsky said that the Buffalo Billion was a tremendous validation of planning and design. "Folks, that was manna from heaven; it was a resounding vote of confidence in the work of this region and school."

The shot-in-the-arm wouldn’t come all at once, or without a great deal of due diligence and shared private investment (at a minimum leverage ratio of 5:1). The Council’s Buffalo Billion investment plan, produced by The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Institute, consultant McKinsey & Co., and UBRI, takes a closer look at the region’s industry sectors and market levers such as innovation capital and the “livability” of its communities and puts forth six signature initiatives.

Today, more than half of the pot has been committed. Among the Buffalo Billion-supported developments is SolarCity, the largest solar panel manufacturing facility in the Western Hemisphere, now under construction on a brownfield just south of downtown Buffalo. Advanced manufacturing investments include an R&D facility downtown and the development of a workforce training center on Buffalo’s East Side. Now in its second year, the 43North business idea competition has drawn over 10,000 applicants from around the world, providing over $5 million in awards to start-up ventures each year. 

Yet the smaller-scale initiatives funded through this new economic development governance structure have yielded impacts of equal importance. As a single point of entry for economic development funding requests, New York State’s Consolidated Funding Application is primarily administered by the regional councils. In Western New York, proposals are vetted against the plan’s investment criteria, including a Smart Growth Scorecard.  

Now in its fifth round, the CFA process has funneled $272.5 million to the region for projects including the restoration of Lockport’s Erie Canal locks, a manufacturing business revolving loan fund for Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua Counties, renewable energy projects to create green jobs through PUSH Buffalo’s “Green Development Zone” on the West Side, and streetscape improvements to downtown Buffalo. 

PUSH Buffalo’s Green Development Zone, which links the environmental movement to job creation, has received CFA support for sustainable development projects across Buffalo’s West Side. Below, the PUSH Buffalo crew excavates a site to support permeable landscaping and reduce impacts on Buffalo’s combined sewer system. Photo courtesy of PUSH Buffalo

The CFA-funded Biorefinery Commercialization Center at Alfred State College in Allegany County has transformative potential for the rural district, according to Curtis Crandall, chairman of the county’s board of legislators. The center will house the “New Forest Economy” initiative, a collaborative effort with Cattaraugus County and SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry to harvest low-grade woods and extract valuable chemicals and sugars for export. “We see this as a project that can spread well beyond our borders and reach across New York State as a whole,” says Crandall.

Christopher Schoepflin, current director of the Western New York office of Empire State Development and head of USA Niagara Development Corp., says the annual funds reinforce a process that has engaged over 9,000 community members to date. “It has brought the plan to life for all the people who have put time into it,” he says. 

It’s also a powerful lever, according to Quebral. “We had a lot of folks who [used to say] a dollar is a dollar. We should be thankful, period. We didn’t talk about access to jobs, downtown vitality, the costs of redundancy. Now we do. We haven’t changed the laws, and you can still convert farmland into residential. You just can’t do it with [state] support.”

Adds Zemsky:

"We could be talking about SolarCity anywhere; instead, it's on a brownfield in South Buffalo."

Long Way to Go

Regional leaders acknowledge the risks of complacency – Buffalo’s “comeback” has a long way to go. The city remains one of the poorest in the U.S., with stubbornly underperforming schools and vacancy problems creeping into first-ring suburbs. Poverty, unemployment and a declining agricultural base challenge the region’s rural communities.  

Yet more than any dollar figure, it’s the process that leaves Zemsky optimistic about the regions’ future. “When it comes down to it, it isn’t all about the money. That’s why I’m convinced that the plan, and the process around it, is of greater recurring value. If that’s the template we’re going to use going forward, it’s going to bode well for the community.”