Free Enterprise Staff  | July 28, 2015

Buffalo, NY: Where the Cool Kids Want to Live

With Buffalo in the midst of a stunning transformation to reinvent the formerly flagging industrial center, economic development initiatives are creating jobs and helping fuel a resurgence of the city’s downtown area. But what does that mean now and in the future?

As we recently reported, Buffalo has been the beneficiary of a coordinated effort between government and business that has sought to remake what was once a venerable economic hub. The region’s decades-long manufacturing slump, however, drove many employers away from Buffalo, which saw unemployment rise and opportunities erode.

Yet with billions of dollars going toward major construction projects, Buffalo’s downtown increasingly resembles the crane-crowded skylines of cities like Dubai or Shanghai. Helping lead this charge is Howard Zemsky, whose business, Larkin Development Group, is spearheading a number of neighborhood-changing projects throughout Buffalo’s waterfront.

Zemsky, who now heads the state’s Economic Development Agency, first started focusing on Buffalo’s downtown area a decade ago, when he purchased and subsequently renovated one of the area’s many blighted buildings. Led by Zemsky’s example, more and more conversion projects have come to define Buffalo, with the number of office space and residential units rising in lockstep.

“There’s a ton of interest in people working downtown and moving downtown, and I think it’s only going to continue,” Zemsky says.

Yet building new developments is by no means a surefire way to invigorate a down-on-its-luck city. What distinguishes Buffalo is that it has succeeded where similar projects elsewhere around the U.S. have failed. That’s because Buffalo has adopted a strategic economic plan that leverages its historically strong industries—education, high-tech, among others—as pillars of future growth.

Among the city’s major draws is the newly renovated, 600,000-square-foot Larkin Terminal Warehouse building, which is home to an increasing number of businesses and government offices. Also helping reenergize Buffalo is Larkin Square, a privately owned public space that hosts outdoor markets, food trucks, concerts, and other events that routinely attract thousands of locals. This is something that would never have existed in Buffalo even a decade ago, explains Zemsky.

“I lived in Vermont for five years in college and even in that amount of time, coming back, I was like a new person in a new city because so much has happened,” he said in an interview. “I’ve been approaching the city with a different attitude. The mindset when I was younger was ‘I’ll get out of here eventually.’ Now the attitude is ‘Buffalo is a great place to live in, there are great things going on.’ There are tons of kids around my age that are doing great things– urban planners and preservationists, etc. The younger cultural and art-related community is coming out.”

It’s initiatives like these that have helped Buffalo successfully lure young people back within its borders. Millennials are making Buffalo home once again in growing numbers. Drawn by Buffalo’s comparatively low cost of living, its increasing number of restaurants and stores, and its vibrant, rehabilitated public spaces, 20- and 30-something professionals are making it clear that Buffalo is as desirable a place to live as places like Los Angeles or Atlanta.

There’s hard data to back this claim up. According to a recent study conducted by City Observatory, people aged 25 to 34 with a college degree make up more than 5.2% of Buffalo’s population—up from 3.8% in 2000. College degree attainment has also shot up in Buffalo, increasing from 30% to 42% over the same period of time. Perhaps most striking, however, is the number of young people living in the city’s downtown, which rose 38% over the same 12-year period. (Could you take one of these stats and compare it to the same thing in LA or Atlanta?)

This is the kind of trend that builds on itself. Success, after all, begets success. These recent developments have excited locals, like E. Frits Abell, who are similarly working to cultivate the city’s upward trajectory. As Abell noted, Buffalo has benefited from its vibrant cultural community, and because other urban centers have become prohibitively expensive.

“Major cities like New York have become so inaccessible for young people, for the creative class, or basically for anyone who isn’t super rich,” Abell said in an interview. “If you can get a good opportunity in Buffalo, you’re going to be better off because it’s less expensive.”

With its affordability, rapidly improving quality of life, and ever-growing number of stores, restaurants, and attractions—not to mention jobs—Buffalo is in the midst of one of the most impressive urban transformations of this century. While nothing in life is certain, public and private officials are working with locals to ensure the city just doesn’t come back from the brink—but that it’s better than ever.