Lessons for Buffalo from a boomtown

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Buffalo is not Austin, Texas, and never will be.

They bake. We freeze.

They have Lance Armstrong. We had OJ.

They don’t pay state income taxes. We do. Oh boy, do we.

But I’ve come away from two visits to Austin since last summer thinking there are lessons to be learned.

The Texas capital is booming. Austin proper added some 160,000 residents between 2001 and 2010, up 20 percent. Only one major metro area grew at a faster pace.

The region also added jobs at a faster rate than any major metro area in the nation over the past eight years. As in 140,200, and counting.

How do we get in on the action?

Take notes.

Lesson One: Ride your university hard.

Austin is home to the flagship campus of the University of Texas, which, like everything else in the state, is outsized.

Some 50,000 students attend the Austin campus. The football stadium holds over 100,000. The LBJ Presidential Library is located there. You get the picture.

Many students come to Austin as 18-year-olds and don’t want to leave when they graduate. Which leads me to…
Lesson Two: Be cool.

The “creative class” gravitates towards fun places to live and work. Like Austin.

It’s got a vibrant music and cultural scene. Think “Austin City Limits.” Think “South by Southwest.” Think music venues per capita than any city in the country.

Downtown is alive. It’s got a huge neighbor in the University of Texas, which is just a long stumble down the street. It’s got waterfront parks. It’s got bike paths. It’s got a spate of new high-rise condos.

Most of all, Austin has attitude. As in “Keep Austin Weird.”

As opposed to “Talking Proud” or, what is it now? “Buffalo: For Real.”

Lesson Three: Grow your own.

As in the aforementioned 140,200 jobs. High-tech has helped drive the growth. Of late, pharmaceutical and bio tech companies have started springing up en masse.

How do they do it? By focusing on innovation and entrepreneurship.

It helps to have thousands of graduates pouring out of the University of Texas every spring. But that’s just the beginning. Austin has incubators to nurture start-ups and a focus on growing companies already in the region. More than three-quarters of new jobs are created by locally based businesses.

In other words, Austin isn’t chasing smokestacks. They’re building ’em, or the 21st-century version.

A 2011 report by CBS summed it up this way: “Austin’s entrepreneurs say there’s no secret to their success. It’s just an entire community committed to job creation. “

So, what are the lessons for Buffalo and Western New York?

Well, for starters, we’ve got a few key ingredients in place, starting with our version of the University of Texas in the University at Buffalo. Along with another 20 or so colleges and universities. And that’s starting to pay off. The 2010 Census shows a surge in the number of local residents with college degrees, especially among those with graduate and professional degrees.

We’ve also got a much better cultural scene than most cities our size. Everything from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery to the Sportsmen’s Tavern helps.

What we don’t have is a culture that lends itself to entrepreneurship, and that’s worth pondering as we contemplate how to take advantage of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s pledge of $1 billion in state assistance to rebuild the regional economy.

Conventional thinking says to find companies that can add good paying jobs and offer them cash, tax breaks or other incentives. That’s certainly going to be part of the mix.

But a number of economic development types maintain the real key to restoring this region’s economic vitality rests in making Buffalo a place to retains and attracts the creative class.

“A stable, well-educated work force will attract jobs and will also create them,” said Larry Quinn, a developer and former managing partner of the Buffalo Sabres. “Create an environment that young risk-takers want to live and entrepreneurship will flourish.“

Jim Allen, executive director of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency, seconds that motion.

“Some of the [$1 billion] needs to be focused on place-making, in the sense, how do we make this region more attractive to the creative class—people who are likely to have new ideas and start new businesses? The reason why we have to do this is our future is based on entrepreneurs creating new ideas, new jobs,” he said.

There are certainly a lot of ways of making the region more attractive to up-and-comers.

Here’s one: A few years ago, Sue McCartney of the Small Business Development Center came up with a nifty idea—recruit bright business minds by staging a worldwide competition that would provide cash grants to entrepreneurs under 30 to develop their ideas here.

You could say the approach is unconventional. Even weird.

As the lessons of Austin teach us, that’s the point.