VIDEO: Executive Forum: The future of our city

The pandemic bullied its way into the path of the renaissance that Western New York had been enjoying, slowing or stopping progress in business and industry that was decades in the making.

But local leaders who participated in the recent Business First’s Executive Forum: The Future of Cities attest that the momentum has been delayed, not denied. It might seem like an impossible undertaking since Buffalo has already been hit with enormous challenges such as changes in investor patterns and talent migration. But resilience and determination, the kind that brought about the renaissance, will again strengthen the region, the leaders said.

Panelists were:

  • John Cappellino, president and CEO, Erie County Industrial Development Agency
  • Douglas Dimitroff, partner, Phillips Lytle LLP
  • Thomas Kucharski, president and CEO, Invest Buffalo Niagara
  • Scott Stenclik, president and CEO, Aleron Inc.

Statistics illustrate the substantial losses the local economy suffered in the last year, but look beyond the numbers and the story improves, Kucharski said.

“We’ve been creamed by the pandemic but a lot of the industries we work with are not doing great but they’re hanging in there,” he said. “We have to be nimble and flexible. The key to the last 20 years of this renaissance is collaboration. We are going to have to double down on that going forward.”

One reliable business driver for the region, Buffalo’s proximity to Canada, will continue to provide opportunities as border-crossing restrictions are eased post-Covid, Stenclik said.

Canadian companies still will need access to U.S. markets to grow, he said, and convenience, low operation costs and exceptional talent here will continue to provide those companies with a soft landing.

“We’ve been creamed by the pandemic but a lot of the industries we work with are not doing great but they’re hanging in there,” he said. “We have to be nimble and flexible. The key to the last 20 years of this renaissance is collaboration. We are going to have to double down on that going forward.”

One reliable business driver for the region, Buffalo’s proximity to Canada, will continue to provide opportunities as border-crossing restrictions are eased post-Covid, Stenclik said.

Canadian companies still will need access to U.S. markets to grow, he said, and convenience, low operation costs and exceptional talent here will continue to provide those companies with a soft landing.

Canadian companies may well help the Buffalo area participate in the U.S. economy’s roaring return, as predicted, later this year and into next. But also contributing to the local comeback will be organizations such as ECIDA and financial and legal experts who can help position companies for success, post-Covid, Cappellino said.

There are plenty of resources out there ready to help businesses, he said.

“It’s difficult because they’re trying to navigate their day-to-day existence,” Cappellino said. “They should take a minute and really triage what their needs are going to be over the next 12 to 24 months and think about what assets they are going to try to access. There are lots of resources out there, but it takes some effort to matchmake and work through those.”

Be proactive, he said, and reach out to the services and programs that can help.

Dimitroff said the region should keep an expectant eye on Buffalo’s Race for Place initiative announced by Mayor Byron Brown in February 2020. Through public-private collaborations, the effort aims to retain and attract talent ensuring inclusivity and opportunity for all through a focus on assets in the downtown neighborhood around lower Main Street.

Among the improvements: infrastructure and streetscape enhancements, traffic calming and management designs, pedestrian and bike friendly activities, promotion of public transit usage and the extension of car sharing on Main Street. There also will be public safety initiatives to make people who live, work and visit there feel comfortable.

The Race for Place also seeks to strengthen the anchors along the Main Street Knowledge Corridor and implements Smart City technologies in the downtown neighborhood and beyond.

Dimitroff praised Douglas Development Corp. for agreeing to forgo tax benefits for its Seneca One Tower development project, which anchors lower Main Street, so those funds can contribute to infrastructure improvements.

It is an all-encompassing effort toward workforce development.

“Talent attraction is the most significant issue facing cities and regions now,” Dimitroff said. “It has evolved from a competition to attract business investment to how do we train people and retain a workforce.”

Additionally, for the community to expect economic growth, it needs to instill a confidence among business and industry leaders that the region’s assets have value and are stable, Cappellino said.

“The more we can do to have certainty, to be collaborative in our plans and our thinking, so that companies know what the community is doing and what to expect in the next four to five years will be beneficial,” he said.

To attract new enterprises, placemaking will be “a huge deal,” he said, as companies and employees want to be in communities where they can live, work and play. Development sites and existing buildings also must continue to be promoted as an attraction.

Care must be directed to companies that are growing here, Cappellino said. They face headwinds at times depending on their industry so conversations need to happen so that organizations such as the ECIDA can address those challenges and enable companies to stay and grow in the region.

“The more we can provide some certainty across those factors, the better that those businesses will be making investments and decisions that will tie up capital in our community,” Cappellino said.

To the list of area assets, Dimitroff added the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the region’s parks and streetscape improvement. And while there has been a lot of activity in those areas and others, he said, it’s not enough if the area expects to compete with cities in the U.S. and outside the U.S.

What will expedite more change? Many more partnerships among public, private and philanthropic organizations, Dimitroff said. He acknowledged the partnerships that are transforming the Bethlehem Steel site and Buffalo’s LaSalle Park.

Kucharski added a few more attractive selling points: Reasonable or free wireless, affordable residential real estate and workplace options that include working from home or close to home such as in the area’s Opportunity Zones.

“My elevator speech is that we’re the Midwest of the Northeast. We’re a little spread out, we’re friendly, we bring you into the community in a hurry, but we move at the pace of business. This will play out well in the future,” Kucharski said. “We have to be nimble and we have to be smart and challenge what we’ve done. We build on our history, but we need to embrace new ideas.”

Stenclik echoed those sentiments. Add a favorable real estate market and plentiful resources for start-up and emerging businesses, and Buffalo competes well against peer cities such as Columbus and Pittsburgh. He said Aleron has been contributing with its Viaduct program, which assists new and growing businesses with strategies for landing top talent and tapping into other resources.

“Anytime we recruit someone to join a company in Buffalo, it’s a lot easier now that it has been in the past,” Stenclik said. “Traditionally this city has lagged in terms of its city peers in attracting talent. The quality of life and the cost of living in Buffalo are in our favor. The regional economic development team has been more effective using that a tool of attraction for companies and workers.”

Sectors that have been doing well include clean energy, 3D printing, tourism and medical technologies, he said. The community also has high expectations for the technology hub and tech academy to be located in the Seneca One Tower. Such industries have bright futures, having attracted investment from outside the area.

Keep an eye on the growing movie industry taking root on Niagara Street and in South Buffalo, as well.

The region long ago recognized it has several attributes that are attractive to the companies that shoot and produce films, Kucharski said. Those include good and varied locations within an easily drivable distance, the ability to bring crews from Toronto, the collaboration and cooperation of all local governments when permits are required and the digital technology available at area colleges for computer graphics and enhancements.

New York state tax credits are driving this development, Dimitroff said.

“Because of the state tax credits, Buffalo is getting a lot of attention from production studios and the support services that come along with that,” he said. “It’s a promising future, and it’s not just in the future that it might happen, but it will be happening in the next six months to a year.”

While the region has successes in which to take pride, it has some work to do to instill greater diversity and economic and social justice.

“Buffalo is becoming an increasingly diverse city and we as a community need to work hard to be less segregated,” he said, “and be more assertive in promoting economic and social justice to our entire community especially underserved populations.”

The panelists repeatedly praised the collaborative nature of the region’s government and economic development agencies, including that those that are transforming the Bethlehem Steel site on Route 5 in Lackawanna.

“It’s a little bit of a microcosm of our journey from the legacy of the industry that created the region to where we’re going,” Cappellino said.

Motorists along Route 5 may notice construction of a 280,000-square-foot production and distribution center being built by Time Release Properties LLC, a cleaning products manufacturer. A grand opening is anticipated next year. That project will soon be joined by a sugar-processing plant for Sucro Sourcing, a Florida company, and 150,000-square-foot spec manufacturing/warehouse to be built by Uniland Development Co.

The site is attractive to companies because of the existing infrastructure that includes the deep-water port, rail and electricity, Cappellino said.

On the recreation side, there are plans to extend the existing bike path there to Woodlawn Beach, he noted.

A manufacturer that moves into that spec building would join a cluster of large and small manufacturers that will continue to be an important contributor to the Western New York economy, Kucharski said. Today, a dollar that goes into that sector is circulated six times before leaving the area. That multiplier effect could only grow as manufacturing is integrated more deeply into the region’s business and industry.

Kucharski said greater partnerships with entrepreneurs and manufacturers can take a concept and move it to a second stage. To that end, Invest Buffalo Niagara is about to roll out a program that will help second-stage companies stay and grow in Western New York.

A key performance indicator for many industries is a pipeline, and to that end Cappellino’s ECIDA had a record month in January with five project approvals. It was the highest number of monthly approvals at the agency in years, he said.

“Some of that was built-up demand from 2020, some if it was rebound and optimism in the marketplace, where the markets are going and where this community is going,” Cappellino said. “Things can change but we’re really optimistic. Companies are starting to figure out how they are going to move forward. We’re seeing a lot of robust activity at this point.”

Reliable broadband connectivity became a critical issue everywhere as work and school shifted to the online universe in 2020. The expansion and enhancement of networks is largely through private network and fiber companies. It is up to the companies to determine where they are going to invest their dollars, and it likely will be years before 5G is the reality across the country, Dimitroff said. New York could expedite network development by removing regulatory barriers, such as easing access to public rights of way, he said.

The panelists identified other priorities for the region to pursue: In a spirit of inclusion, make sure everyone has a seat around the table, Stenclik said.

Communicate to companies or individuals considering a move here the strong sense of community they will find, Kucharski said.

Pushing together collectively, Dimitroff maintains, is important to continue the progress the region is enjoying.

Cappellino agreed that improved and continued collaboration will move the region forward. But we need to stop comparing ourselves to major cities, he said.

“The key is to be the best Buffalo,” Cappellino said. “We have the assets we have; we need to maximize those. We need to put the accelerator on the things that we have that are great.”