By Mark C. Poloncarz, Erie County Executive
An economic renaissance is happening here at the western end of New York State, a rebirth that builds on our rich industrial heritage while transforming our economy into a contemporary engine powered by the jobs of the future. This rebirth did not happen in a vacuum. It did not occur because Erie County government sat back and let the private sector lead. Instead, Erie County took the lead in changing the way we pursue economic development opportunities. That change is paying off with the creation of thousands of new jobs in our community.
When I took office in 2012, the county’s unemployment rate was 8.9% and our population was dropping. However, I understood county government can and should play a leading role in the economic development of a region. Prior to being elected, I said that if I was given the privilege to lead our community, my deputy county executive would act as the economic development czar for the region, and that is exactly what I did when elected. I also tasked major components of my administration to focus on economic development, and the results of all these efforts are bearing substantial fruit.
Today, our unemployment rate has dropped to 5.7%, An additional 15,000 people are employed in our community than in 2012 and, for the first time in decades, we are seeing population increases. Encouragingly, college graduates are a significant portion of this population growth, coming to Buffalo and the new Erie County for careers in the high-tech fields emerging locally and to enjoy our unparalleled quality of life.
Rebirth Through Careful Planning
This rebirth did not happen in a haphazard or uncoordinated way, but rather as the result of careful planning, cooperation, and commitment between county government and our partners in the public and private sectors. In 2013, I released my economic plan, known as “Initiatives for a Smart Economy.” The plan identified 64 separate initiatives in 12 sectors of our economy that we could implement in a short time period. The plan leverages the County of Erie’s assets and abilities, combines them with the resources of our Industrial Development Agency, and incorporates them as key supporting elements of the Regional Economic Development Council’s priorities for our region. This coordination acts as a “force multiplier” in creating change and revitalizing our economy. The results are already encouraging, with more than 40 of the initiatives underway and roughly half of those completed.
One of those initiatives is to increase the number of Canadian companies opening American subsidiaries in Erie County. We had a big win when Canadian steel manufacturer Welded Tube, recognizing the advantages of locating a U.S. subsidiary here in Erie County, invested $40 million in a modern pipe making facility located on the former Bethlehem Steel site. They brought with them nearly 100 new jobs. Other Canadian companies, such as Outfront Portable Solutions, a patio furniture manufacturer, and TLC Foods, a pet food manufacturer, have also seen the benefits of an Erie County location, like direct access to rail, port, and truck transport. All have located their U.S. operations here rather than in the southern climes they had sought in the past. We are taking this initiative to the next level by retaining an international consulting firm to help identify additional Canadian companies interested in opening American subsidiaries and, hopefully, placing them in Erie County.
Another key to revitalization is taking advantage of our location on Lake Erie to create a “Blue Economy” based on our ample water supply and other clean, green technology based here. Last year we announced a big win as the former Republic Steel site in Buffalo becomes the future home for Solar City’s $3 billion investment in the largest solar panel manufacturing plant in the western hemisphere. Seeded by Governor Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion” initiative, this project is revitalizing a large brownfield site that sat dormant for 30 years, and is an example of how focusing economic development opportunities on our community’s unique strengths can turn a virtual wasteland into one of the largest manufacturing facilities in our nation. Along with supporting industries and accompanying subsidiaries, this project will bring thousands of well-paying jobs to the shores of Lake Erie and the banks of the Buffalo River.
The Solar City project is a good example of Erie County’s land redevelopment priorities, and involving public-private partnerships to create a built environment that is sustainable and has the infrastructure to grow across all sectors. Our area’s rich industrial heritage provides both opportunities and challenges, and careful stewardship of our land and water resources is a top priority in the new Erie County.
This involves not only major improvements in water treatment infrastructure but also improved water access and management of natural areas along our waterways. A 2007 Brookings Institute report estimated that every $1 spent on Great Lakes restoration activities will lead to $2 of economic benefit, and in Erie County we are seeing that borne out as our revitalized waterfront draws thousands of residents and visitors each year.
County government can and must play a role in turning the economic tide around for a region, and you need look no further than Erie County to witness the proof of it.