To drive south from Buffalo on the Skyway is to take in the superb binational waterfront views that are utterly unavailable to anyone who doesn’t have a high-floor office downtown. To drive the Skyway is to lift one’s sights from the clutter of unlovely late-winter roadside snowdrifts and dirtied ice in favor of the vast vista of the winter palette—the temporary tundra atop Lake Erie, the sharp blue of ice-free water north of the end of the ice boom that connects the Canadian and US shores, the happy contrast of the Buffalo water intake’s red-tile Mongol cap with all that flat whiteness that brightens the air on a sharply cold winter’s day.
The Skyway: Where else but from a high-rise corner office does one get so pleasant a view of Lake Erie and the Buffalo River?
To drive the Skyway is to have two minutes of peace and respite from the clamor of voices calling for its destruction, and to get some sky, some light, some sense of elevation, perhaps of freedom, as one is lifted over the moored gray naval vessels and the gray grain elevator and get a glimpse of the geography itself, specifically the confluence of land-forms—the lake’s end, the Niagara’s beginning, the river’s mouth, the Canadian lakeside prairie—that drew our ancestors here and made them rich. To drive the Skyway is to see the expanse of lake, the adjacency of another nation, the employed power of wind as it turns the blades of turbines, the softened moraine hills of the last glaciers, and in this season, it is to see the water undisturbed by much that is human at all—all this, all available, all built, already.
Tearing down the Skyway was not a part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Monday speech about the new public inputs into Buffalo’s economy. Neither did our governor direct either his words or New York State’s money toward any promise of development of the outer harbor, that 100-acre strip of low-lying, windswept former landfill that Frederick Law Olmsted and his sensible successors sensibly saw and see as parkland. And instead of pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to take down a functioning high bridge and replace it with a bridge with a worm’s-eye view, Cuomo came to town to get us to lift our sights about the next economy here.
The message was this: New York State will invest some more money in bringing high-paying jobs here that you’re going to have to study hard to qualify for. And this: New York State will pay your kid’s college tuition if your kid studies math and science. And this: what money will come will come to downtown Buffalo, where the science-based jobs will be.
In the latest Siena College poll, Cuomo’s favorability tracks by region, and by how the region’s residents see the economy going. The sentiment west of the Hudson River is sour; Cuomo scores better than Obama, but not by much, though unemployment rates have dropped everywhere. Were Cuomo doing what New York governors have done since the late Nelson Rockefeller’s day, his inputs into Buffalo would look more like what the last Republican governor did, the one who offered great state largesse to the Rigas family, formerly of Coudersport, Pennsylvania, and now residing at various secure locations in that great Commonwealth. Democrats spend money, Republicans spend money. The difference this time is that Cuomo’s spending looks more like a chain of linked challenge grants than a series of one-off construction projects.
Last year, Cuomo came with money for moving a solar-energy technology company, after he’d brought in a firm that does computer models of systems that have moving mechanical parts that wear out. The Albany-based firm for which Cuomo built a shop two years ago will soon start making markets for the drugs and other healthcare-related compounds that Buffalo-based researchers are coming up with. The next Cuomo inputs are for firms that will produce things related to the study, once centered here, of how the human genome works, and now, per Monday’s announcement, for a branch office of IBM’s software-development operations. Cuomo’s efforts are targeted to the specific geography of downtown. They are specifically targeted toward technological innovation that will (so it is hoped) create exports that will import money from other geographies.
Buildings will inevitably get built in order to get these new firms here, or, once here, to get them going. But there are three aspects to this approach that are quite disruptive, quite new. First, the new state money is going for amplifying the strengths of institutions—especially the university—yet it is not particularly focused on fixing what is broken institutions. Second, the money is going to change the mix of employed people here by bringing more scientists, more technicians, more engineers, in a regional economy that lost all but the academic versions of those folks when the aircraft industry left here a generation ago. Third, the existing structures of economic development are going to be involved to the extent that they’re going to help with sites, probably also with the usual array of construction-oriented tax abatements and finance, but these offices will be steered from above.
Meanwhile, the locals
Every year at budget time, the fissures between Upstate and Downstate become more visible than usual. For Long Island, as for the Upstate metros and for the Hudson Valley suburbs of New York City, there is talk about property tax relief—an issue that has very little political salience for the more than eight million people who live inside the boundaries of New York City. Job growth in the New York metro area is so strong, as is population growth, that the worry and hand-wringing about the economy there has been set aside, and the pollsters observe that the outlook for Cuomo there is strongly positive. Cuomo beats Donald Trump by 44 points in the Siena poll; he beats Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino by 42 points. The trouncing is immense where the economy is strong and where it’s perceived to be strong. Such anti-Cuomo sentiment as exists is centered here, in Paladino country.
That’s what makes the politics of Cuomo’s investments here so distinctive. There’s no question that, in his re-election year, any governor would do anything other than come to town bearing gifts: To paraphrase Cuomo, we know how politics works. What’s different is that Cuomo’s packages aren’t going to get opened for a while: They’re more like the savings bonds that stern uncles give at confirmation parties, not the video games found under the tree at Christmastime. The savings bonds are all about a future of obligation, and of college days ahead, not about fund and parties today. George Pataki gave state money to help the crooked cable guys come in and buy a hockey team. Andrew Cuomo is giving state money and telling everybody to turn Wii off and turn the Khan Academy math-tutorial videos on.
Meanwhile, the locals do what they do: They clamor for state money to knock down one bridge over the Buffalo River in order to build another one. They clamor for more money for a great big collection of school districts to go their separate ways rather than taking Cuomo up on his consolidation challenge, which, if they’d only read the actual budget documents, show precisely how to get the money.
Changing the political culture in Upstate, where the state money keeps a-comin’ in, is a bridge too far even for the ambitious Andrew Cuomo. What our locals should awaken to is the sentiment at the very center of this soon-to-be-enacted budget: that though there is no revolution at hand, and though the dysfunction of dependency on make-work projects and go-it-alone local governance may persist awhile, the incentives are for new behavior, not for more old behavior. This is a governor who will be re-elected: The budget initiatives for this year will get amplified next year, doubtless sharpened, too—with even more emphasis on human capital, even less sugar for construction projects, and a more explicit push for governmental consolidation.
So far, it’s not clear that local elected officials have awakened to the change. The Amherst site for the new Erie Community College science and technology building is still Erie County government’s plan. No locally generated efforts at school district consolidation are happening anywhere west of the Hudson River. Merger talks are happening neither between Rochester and Monroe County nor between Syracuse and Onondaga County, and certainly not between Buffalo and Erie County.
Not yet, anyway.
Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or atwww.sunypress.edu.