Envisioning a thriving WNY

Climate change is bad. But it represents an opportunity for the Buffalo area, starting with its access to fresh water. To capitalize, we need to get our act together.
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Editor’s note: A version of this column appeared in Buffalo Spree.

My wife recently told me of an acquaintance who was moving to California. My response: Who would want to move to California? The land of forest fires, droughts and water shortages?

The same could be said of much of the West and Southwest. It’s not uninhabitable – yet – but give it another generation and you’re likely to see an out-migration.

That represents an opportunity for cities around the Great Lakes, including Buffalo and Western New York.  We’ll never run out of water. Massive forest fires? Nah. Ditto for droughts. 

Yes, it snows and gets cold in the winter. Pretty tame stuff by comparison.


Mapping the impact of climate change by region


So, Mother Nature, with an assist from man-made climate change, is going to help WNY reverse 50 years of misfortune. But to capitalize on the opportunity, we’re going to have to help ourselves.

We’re often been our own worst enemy. We’ve made some terrible planning decisions, as when state and regional leaders allowed the University at Buffalo to expand in the suburbs rather than making it an economic engine for downtown Buffalo. Those same leaders promoted policies facilitating white flight from the city to the suburbs — policies that continue to do damage to the environment and cost taxpayers. And they’ve largely shrugged their shoulders at the problem of poverty and the ills that come with it.

We as a community should look forward a generation to 2040 – 19 years away – and dare to imagine a functional – no, make that a thriving – region. What does it look like and what will it take to get there from here?

Fix the city: Buffalo ranks as the third-poorest city in the nation. That poverty goes a long way towards explaining our high crime rate. Buffalo’s violent crime rate ranks 12th worst among 79 cities with a population between a quarter- and a half-million. It also partly explains why only about a quarter of public school students post proficient test scores in reading, writing and math. Poverty also helps explain why so many neighborhoods are in disrepair and their commercial districts are ghost towns. Simply put, we need to stop looking the other way at poverty and do something about it. A lot of something.

Fix Niagara Falls: The Cataract City suffers many of the same ailments as Buffalo. It’s one-fifth the size, meaning it could be easier to turn around. Moreover, it’s got the potential to recapture its stature as a tourist destination that’s known throughout the world. Look what they’ve done on the Canadian side of the Rainbow Bridge with smart planning. 

Link our regional economy with that of Toronto and Southern Ontario. Prior to the pandemic, there were few regional economies in North America as dynamic as metro Toronto. The core is less than two hours down the road, and that trip could be a whole lot quicker with high speed rail – or even medium speed rail. Our border bureaucracies serve as an artificial barrier that needs to be cut down to size. Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut and the Hudson Valley all feed off their proximity to New York City. There’s no reason why we can’t do likewise with Toronto.

Smarter governance, lower taxes. We can’t do much about the state’s high taxes and regulatory environment. But we can clean up our own backyard. There are some 105 units of local government in Erie and Niagara counties — that is, cities, towns, villages and school districts. And countless other economic development agencies, authorities, taxing districts and the like. Who benefits from this excess? Only the politicians and bureaucrats they employ. Joel Giambra failed at regionalism, and he did the cause no favor with his mismanagement of finances when he served as Erie County executive. It’s time to try again.

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Be smart about subsidies and other public investments. One billion dollars proposed to build a single-purpose football stadium to be used a dozen times a year out in the suburbs. Another billion dollars spent on the Tesla factory in South Buffalo that’s not even close to meeting job creation goals. Subsidies worth $4 million per job to lure a company to the boondocks of Genesee County. Subsidies for new office space in a downtown with near record high vacancy rates. We need to stop spending money on the wrong things.

Bring our infrastructure into the 21st century and clean up our environment in the process. No one has put a price tag on the cost of replacing the region’s aging water lines and sewage systems, that latter of which have fouled practically every major waterway in WNY. Safe to say, it’s got to be several billion dollars, probably more. Making that investment would enable us to sell the region as a natural wonder that’s green, to boot.

Stop sprawl. It benefits only developers. Hats off to those who revitalize existing buildings in the urban core and inner-ring suburbs. A pox on the rest of them. They have promoted sprawl and corrupted our politics with their pay-to-play campaign donations in exchange for subsidies and favorable planning decisions. One reason why Portland, Oregon, has thrived because it limited sprawl. It drove smart planning decisions, smart investments – and smart growth.

All this is a tall order. Really tall, requiring bold leadership, the likes of which is hard to find in these parts.

I propose we begin with the end in mind: a dynamic, growing Western New York in the year 2040 that’s a  good place to live for the natives and a destination for climate refugees fleeing wildfires in the West, droughts in the Southwest, and rising seas on the coasts.

Anyone have a better idea?