I recently attended the International Economic Development Council’s (IEDC) “future forum” in Buffalo, New York. IEDC has quarterly conferences around the nation and provides economic practioners like myself with great access to new ideas and trends that benefit New Braunfels.
Having the venue in Buffalo was not by accident considering the theme of the event was how cities and regions can remain sustainable. Webster’s (for those of us still using a dictionary and not just via google search) defines the word “sustain” as “to keep in existence” and “to keep up.” Buffalo in the early 1800’s was nothing more than a stop over to the Great West (then Missouri) with population of less than 10,000. By the early 1900’s it was the envy of most cities in the nation, with the most per capita millionaires, the first city with widespread electricity, the most museums, and more.
In 1950, their population was 600,000, but today it is 250,000. What happened? First, one has to understand why it flourished. A leading Buffalo entrepreneur approached the builders and financiers of the coming Erie Canal and convinced them to place the western terminus in Buffalo. That meant the heretofore seven week journey of grain to the populous East Coast from Missouri could now get this commodity in seven days instead. Boom days for Buffalo occurred as they became the grain elevator capital of the nation.
So, what happened several decades later? Someone created a shorter route to the East Coast and out to the Atlantic Ocean. Game, set, match for Buffalo! Did city leaders see it coming? Why didn’t they diversify their economy when it was booming? Did they get complacent? Did they spend on wants versus needs? The stories abound to this day, but they have put that behind them and are creating a new Buffalo with a diverse economy and additional quality of place amenities to attract people.
There are many lessons from Buffalo other communities should pay attention to. As the Frank Sinatra song says, “Riding high in April, shot down in May” could be a theme song for many cities that focus on one thing like landing a large company and then finding out later that it was not sustainable. Or, they place all their eggs (investments) in one basket and wonder later why other areas of the economy or community are not up to acceptable standards.
We are fortunate that through the years in our city, leaders by and large have understood and adhered to a strategy of consistent job and wealth expansion with targeted and diverse industry sectors. As my predecessor Tom Purdum would say, “Better to have 20 companies at 50 jobs each than one at 1,000. With a free market system, jobs will unfortunately come and go, but better to lose one or two of the 50 person employers than the one at 1,000.”
Sustainable investments by our community will pay dividends long after we are gone. Investing limited taxpayer dollars in needs versus wants has been a staple. Let’s hope that continues. We wouldn’t want to end up “Buffaloed”!