The economic troubles of the industrial Midwest are quite well-known: the decline of heavy industry causing rapid migration of citizens to more economically dynamic (and often more clement) communities, while those who remain struggle to sustain government services and deteriorating infrastructure with a declining tax base.
Truth be told, that is only a part of the story of both Buffalo’s past . . . and the city’s future.
Buffalo’s greatness has always been inherent in her geography—and in her people. Buffalo’s future—a quite promising future—remains equally grounded in this place, and this immigrant culture of hard work and innovation.
Founded around 1790, the original community owed its creation to this location, founded on the eastern edge of Lake Erie, the head of the mighty Niagara River and the edge of Buffalo Creek. The central location is why the British attacked Western New York during the War of 1812, even burning Buffalo in 1813. It is also why the New York State Legislature designated Buffalo as the terminus of the Erie Canal. The canal opened in 1825. Rapid growth ensued, and the City of Buffalo was officially incorporated in 1832.
Positioning Buffalo securely between the Great Lakes and Europe via New York Harbor, the canal set the stage for Buffalo’s prosperity—but it was its geography that truly made it possible.
Buffalo soon became a world leader in processing commercial goods, especially agricultural goods and chiefly grain, from the Midwest. (Agricultural exports measured anywhere between 50 and 85 percent of American exports throughout the 19th century, rivaled only by cotton, whose fortunes rose and fell with the Civil War and Reconstruction.)
This economic activity made fortunes. By 1900 Buffalo was the eighth-largest city in the United States. Prosperity attracted the best America had to offer: Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry Hobson Richardson and Louis Sullivan built magnificent skyscrapers. Frederick Law Olmsted designed a remarkable parks system. The city saw innovation and encouraged invention through groups such as the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company and Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company. Buffalo was home to the Niagara Movement. Geography made Buffalo the penultimate stop of the Underground Railroad. The world came to the Pan-American Exposition. Unfortunately for him, that included President William McKinley.
In the wake of his assassination, Theodore Roosevelt became president in Buffalo.
This same geography sustained Buffalo through the railroad age, with major rail lines such as the Erie Railroad and the Albany & New York Central maintaining Buffalo’s position as a central hub in American commerce. In 1927 private investors even built the Peace Bridge over the Niagara River, connecting Buffalo to Ft. Erie, Ontario.
Nothing lasts forever, and neither did Buffalo’s success. The reasons for its decline are too many and too detailed to discuss here, but every explanation centers on the 1957 opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which created trade routes that bypassed Buffalo.
However, that same geography has set the stage for Buffalo’s long-term revival.
In one day of travel, more than 55 percent of the U.S. population can be reached from Buffalo, and about 65 percent of Canada’s population. Buffalo is uniquely situated to transport goods by all means, including air, water, rail and road.
The City of Buffalo is located about 25 miles south of Niagara Falls, one of the world’s premier tourist attractions, drawing more than 10 million visitors annually. Less than two hours away from Buffalo is Toronto, Ontario, which recently surpassed Chicago to become the fourth-largest city in North America.
And business is taking advantage of this proximity.
FedEx Trade, the international trade division of shipping giant FedEx Corporation, recently opened a major distribution facility in the Town of Tonawanda. FedEx itself is planning a major distribution center on the former Bethlehem Steel complex in Hamburg.
These are just two examples of why Western New York’s location is becoming a center for logistics in the global economy.
The opportunity of Buffalo’s geography is much greater, however. The international border makes the city a bi-national gateway for commerce, facilitating $80 billion in annual trade between Canada and the United States.
Buffalo has long been considered a gateway city to our neighbors to the north. Roughly 30 percent of total Canada–U.S. trade crosses in the Buffalo/Niagara Region, amounting to an estimated $70 billion in annual trade.
There are close to 600,000 jobs in New York State sustained by the $34 billion in trade between Canada and New York.
More specifically, Canadians have embraced Western New York, coming daily for higher education and healthcare, for concerts and dining, attending Bills and Sabres games and so much more, especially shopping. More than 60 percent of the shoppers at the Walden Galleria come from Canada, while that number reaches nearly 80 percent at the Niagara Falls outlets.
At the Buffalo Niagara International Airport approximately one in three passengers comes from Canada, providing the travel numbers that attracted low-cost carriers JetBlue and Southwest and helping fill the hotels and restaurants surrounding the airport.
These transactions provide vital sales tax revenue for both Erie and Niagara counties, going a long way toward balancing the budgets.
A longer prospectus would detail the opportunities that Lake Erie offers Western New York to create green collar jobs, opportunities we are just beginning to realize.
Finally, Buffalo’s past is realized in the people and the culture they created. The work ethic of waves of Irish, Italian, German, Polish and Eastern European immigrants still thrives—and is being matched and reawakened by new groups. Transplants from Yemen and Liberia, as well as young people returning from Brooklyn and North Carolina and San Francisco and many other places, are helping to renew Buffalo.
Jack O’Donnell is a senior vice president and communications director for Bolton–St. Johns, and the author of Bitten By The Tiger, a biography of New York Gov. William Sulzer.
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