Thingish Things

Is Buffalo the Next Detroit?

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Mar• 23•11

I went to a fancy-ish cocktail party in Manhattan this week, where I ran across a cluster of old-time Rockefeller Republicans.

A retired state supreme court judge —  elected back in the days when Republicans could win office in Manhattan — had been traveling during last year’s elections and asked, “what the hell was the Party thinking in nominating Carl Paladino for governor?”

My instant thought was “when was the last time you were in Buffalo, your Honor?”

“Paladino sounded like lots of people in Western New York feel, at least at first,” I replied. And I think that’s pretty much right.

While driving through Buffalo last summer with a candidate for state comptroller, passing block after block of boarded up homes and beautiful vacant commercial properties, I asked the candidate what the worst case scenario for a city like Buffalo might be if it didn’t get back on its feet.

He offered a one-word answer without a moment’s hesitation: “Detroit.”

The candidate, Harry Wilson, knows a bit about the matter. He led the restructuring of General Motors for the President’s Auto Task Force. But maybe more importantly, he grew up poor in an upstate New York manufacturing town and watched the factories close and the jobs, followed by much of his family, vanish from the area.

Wilson argues persuasively that there is nothing inherently wrong with upstate and Western New York cities — indeed, they are inherently attractive to business and commerce.  That’s why they got built in the first place. Buffalo, for example, has everything a business looking to relocate could ask for: an educated work force, solid transportation infrastructure, cheap land, access to capital markets, etc.  The problems crippling the city are manmade — the highest taxes in the country and the worst regulatory environment.

Katharine Seelye has a piece in The New York Times today cataloging the extent to which Detroit has collapsed. It’s terrifying. The Motor City, which once boasted a population of two million now has a population of just 713,000 and its shrinking by the day. In the past decade, 237,500 people have left Detroit, a full 25% of its population, according to The Times. Detroit government is bulldozing entire neighborhoods where children with stickball bats used to dream of playing for the Tigers and where families once planted trees for the next generation to climb. There is a 10,000 building demolition backlog today.

I’ve only seen one scarier thing than that. While driving through rural Georgia with my siblings a couple of years ago, we made a wrong turn in looking for the main road back to Atlanta. We entered a town time had forgotten.  There were houses, a post office, a restaurant, a school, traffic lights, a cemetery, and old railroad tracks.  But all of it had been shut off, like by an unmerciful light switch in the sky. I had never seen a ghost town before and I still can’t shake it.

Buffalo and other struggling Western New York cities are a long way from that, but less far from what’s happening in Detroit. And yet, nothing real is being done about it at the state and federal level.

Government never could have built Detroit. Only people could do that.  Detroit’s government can’t even knock down what individuals and corporations with proper incentive created.  The same goes for Buffalo. The future of these cities depends on government getting their hands and high taxes out of the mix and letting businesses take hold again.  That means tax and mandate relief, and lower pension costs for municipal and states employees.

If all oars were pulling the same direction, one could feel optimistic about the future of these cities. But then you look to the steps of state capitals in Albany and Lansing on any given day and watch the union demonstrators cry: “tax the rich; tax the greedy corporations!”

It’s enough to make you want to shout.



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  1. Brian G. Andersson says:

    Bill – keep up the great work! I really enjoy your observations.

  2. Herb Stupp says:

    Bill, some great insights and a quick response to the Times article.

    There was a great, in-depth front page article on the decline of Buffalo in the departed NY Sun, around 2007 or `08. My last communication with Jack Kemp involved that article, which I shared with him.

    I can find the article for you, if interested.

    I’ve stumbled upon ghost towns, or villages, in the Sullivan Co. Catskills. Like the broken windows in the photo you used, abandoned communities are such sad expressions of despair.

    Congratulations. Herb

  3. Your Friend says:

    There are way too many cities in this country suffering from this problem. It’s an incredible tragedy and one that we should all mourn. The most disturbing pictures I’ve seen are from Gary, Indiana, which has seen it’s population drop from 200k to 80k. It has been getting a great deal of grants and funding in an effort to turn things around. This money has been a combination of private, federal and state, a mix that is probably a little more realistic and effective than simply cutting the corporate tax rate and crossing your fingers.

    But to play devil’s advocate one step further, if I’m a corporation, why would I move to a city like Gary, Detroit or Buffalo when the effectiveness of their rebounds remains in doubt, when I could move to Stamford, CT, Indianapolis, IN, Portland, OR or a hundred other cities that are growing and improving every year and also offer attractive tax incentives? I’m afraid the answer is that I wouldn’t. What community has led the gentrification of every major neighborhood in NY in the last 30 years? That would be the art community. Oh, but wait, the right wants to kill the NEA. Say goodbye to Buffalo.

  4. liz feld says:

    Billy: This is beautifully said — and heartbreaking — but exactly right. The potential exists to turn Buffalo around but we need the leaders of NY to reorder their priorities for it to happen. The legislators from NYC couldn’t care less about western NY or any of the suburbs. We need to fix this. The new Lieutenant Governor should lead the effort to forge public/private partnerships and to get the two U.S. Senators to focus on REAL economic reform that will help the region.

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