Buffalo, New York: America’s Next Great College Town

Perhaps you’ve been told the city of Buffalo, New York is a rust belt hellhole experiencing a massive brain drain, and the only folks left are juggalos, welfare recipients and card-carrying AARP members. Who could blame you for feeling so? The city (and surrounding metro area) has been hemorrhaging residents at a 1% clip per year for the past 50 years.

A recent analysis of the Top 100 metro areas in the United States from the experts at the Brookings Institute, however, would like to share some surprising results with you.

It’s no secret, so we’ll just get this out of the way here, Buffalo and the Buffalo-Niagara metro area are still falling victim to a mass exodus whose prolonged severity is unmatched in any other American city, save Detroit. In the past eight years, another 55,000 snow-sick chickens have flown the coop for elsewhere in these United States. In their place, some 10,000 international citizens have taken up asylum in the area – and we aren’t just referring to Canadians on shopping holiday.

Buffalo is a bizarre sort of psuedo-transient community. Between 2006 and 2009, One in five city proper residents moves each year. That’s an incredible figure, until you count Buffalo’s numerous college students as part of the “City,” which this data does.

Buffalo’s snow-white suburbs are becoming more integrated than ever before. Yes, the percentage of whites to non-whites in the burbs still stands at 90%, but that’s down from 91.4% just three years ago, and down from 92.7% at the beginning of the decade.

The more unusual figure, is that Buffalo’s city is actually becoming whiter. Since reaching its nadir in 2006, the Caucasian population within city limits by over 12,000 – even as overall population has remained constant. Whites are now once again an ethnic majority.

That same figure for African-Americans, by contrast, has dropped 3,000, and 1,000 for Hispanics.

The percentage of foreign-born residents has remained relatively constant.

What’s being shown in age of the residents is a distinct gap where folks who graduated high school in the ’80s and ’90s all appear to have left town and raised their families elsewhere, but citizens older than 47 and younger than 27 seem to be increasing. In other words, Boomers and Millenials account for the greatest percentage increase of population, while Gen-X’ers have largely up-and-left. This could also be due to that particular generation being smaller than those that preceded and succeeded them.

Over the past three years, however, the city proper has seen it’s youthful population spike. From 2006 to 2008, the percentage of residents ages 15-34 increased from 29.6% to 33.9%. The city is indeed getting younger.

14% more people in the city ages 18-24 are enrolled in college or graduate school than they were eight years ago (compared with just 8% for suburbs).

The past year saw a 2.5% spike in employment for people ages 25-64 with Bachelor’s Degrees. Buffalo is, surprsingly, one of the best-educated cities in the United States. No amount of English language butchering on our part can take that away from us.

Hispanics, after seeing a drop in income for the first half of the decade, have rebounded nicely to average $27K per year, as opposed to just $19K per year in 2006.

The average city in the United States has 21% more non-White people living in it today. Buffalo has 8% less.

Buffalo has nearly double the national average of non-White population.

Buffalo ranks 99/100 in percentage change of children under the age of 18.

Buffalo is a singles town, and getting more single-er. It ranks 93/100 in percentage of married w/ children households, 94/100 in percentage-change in that figure, and dead effing last in household size.

Buffalo could potentially reinvent itself as a college town. It ranks 6/100 in percentage of 18-24 year-olds enrolled in school, and outpaces the national average increase in residents with college or graduate degrees.

Buffalo has held its own during the financial recession better than most Industrial Core Metro areas (rust-belt cities, if you must be so derogatory), although the median Buffalo resident makes 4.0% less than it did a decade ago, that figure is actually right at the national average, and much better than the overall figure of rust belt communities (-7.7%).

Additionally, of the top 100 metro areas only four cities had an unemployment rate in March 2009 than in March 2008: Minneapolis, Denver, Chattanooga and Buffalo.

The average Buffalonian commutes less than 15 minutes to work. No wonder only 12% of people use public transportation.

Overall, Buffalo is an education-driven, youth-focused, reasonably-priced, recession-proof mid-sized city, according to conclusions drawn from the available data. Not a bad set of adjectives to send out to your local Tourism Bureau.

So what does it all mean?

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Those who clamor for waterfront development have been sinking their time, funding, resources and voices into the wrong pothole. Though an attractive waterfront would be, well, attractive, it would be window-dressing on a tenement.

Those who look to provide greater services, such as more comprehensive public transportation, increased jobs (particularly in the public and industrial sectors) are also attempting to push a mac truck up a mesa.

By utilizing Buffalo’s many surprisingly myriad natural and logistical selling-points, as well as working with the current demographic trends rather than against them, improvements could be made to the city to give it a fresh jolt of vibrance.

1. Emphasize the college experience. The Buffalo area is home to one major university and no fewer than five colleges. By selling Buffalo to non-locals as a great place to go to school, you increase the pool of residents that could potentially stick around and build their lives and families here. Build more and better on-campus and near-campus housing, and dump funding into academic institutions. Bring more classes and university-centric commerce to the UB South Campus, Canisius and Buffalo State areas.

2. Shrink to success. Buffalo’s designed to be a second-tier city (500,000-1,000,000 residents), with only a fourth-tier city’s tax-base. To stop the public funding shortfall, services need to be cut and re-appropriated to a smaller scale. Forget building up, we need to tear down to provide a stronger foundation before building back up once again.

3. Find the future & Go Green. Part of Buffalo’s stagnant nature is this strong desire to over-celebrate the murky, industrial past. The Early 1900s are no dead and buried. Great thinkers and speculators need to return to Buffalo and look at it as a boomtown for the new smart development movement. The real estate within city limits is beautiful, and what can be salvaged should be modernized and made environmentally friendly, while the bevy of empty buildings and old industrial eyesores should be torn down.

4. Bring commerce back to the city. I’m not talking about BassPro or Northeast commercial hubs. I’m referring to small-scale restaurants, shops and independently run places and attractions where locals can spend their money. Most commerce packed up and moved to the burbs in the latter half of last century. Folks now are moving back to the city yet still spending their money elsewhere. That needs to end to further foster growth. Tear down that worthless subway, watch the shops pop back up, and look how beautiful Main Street could become!

5. Embrace the youth. Target the young, hip demographic that have naturally gravitated back to the city due to cheap rent and proximity to nightlife. Find out what the kids like to do. Find out how they live. Give them a home away from home that isn’t too far away from home.

By running Buffalo as a mid-sized hamlet for the young, budget-conscious, forward-thinking students and cool-seekers, Buffalo can slowly shake the rust off its image and continue to find its way in the coming century.

The Elmwood Village has done a tremendous job cleaning itself up and become a hot destination for people to live, work and play once again. Imagine if what’s pictured below could be duplicated in other neighborhoods across the area. We might just have something hot worth bragging about here … you know, other than our wings.

I’ll close with some links to some cities that have done this well:

Madison, Wisconsin

Austin, Texas

Raleigh, North Carolina

Portland, Oregon

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