Buffalo offers good place to live, but no jobs

Population exodus contiunues despite better economic news for city

April 16, 2000|By Leslie Eaton | Leslie Eaton,New York Times News Service

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- If this city wanted a ruefully honest bumper sticker, it would read, "Buffalo: Love It and Leave It."

The slogan sums up the conundrum that is Buffalo, a city that people say they love to live in and yet are leaving in droves.

Once a bustling home to 1.1 million people, Erie County, which includes Buffalo and its suburbs, now has 926,000 and is shrinking fast. Last year alone, more than 10,000 people moved away, leading to one of the steepest population drops of any county in the nation, according to new federal census estimates.

The departees are not retirees seeking the sun. They are young and middle-age people seeking better jobs -- or any job at all. And despite a burst of better economic news in Buffalo, the exodus continues.

"People have been leaving for 10, 20, 30 years," said Anthony M. Masiello, the city's mayor. "We're not going to see a significant reversal of that for some time."

Though it now has fewer residents than Staten Island, Buffalo remains New York's second largest city, which helps explain why the presidential candidates have been much in evidence. So have Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani, the contenders for Senate. Reigniting the economy is the biggest campaign issue upstate.

But while politicians offer programs and policies, the reality of Buffalo is not simply economic. It is historic, geographic, demographic and psychological.

Far more than in other parts of upstate New York that have also lost residents, the shrinking of Buffalo seems to have seeped into the city's soul and become part of its identity, as much as eating spicy chicken wings and rooting for the Bills.

You can see it in politics: The new county executive won an upset victory with the campaign slogan "Keep Our Kids." You see it in home prices, which have scarcely budged in a decade. You see it on the streets, built for heavier traffic (one of the joys of Buffalo is being able to drive just about anywhere, including to the airport, in less than 20 minutes). You see it in the local sense of humor. One way to tell that you're from Buffalo, the joke goes, is that half of your friends moved to Charlotte, N.C., and the other half went to Raleigh.

And you can see it at Erie Community College's Williamsville campus northeast of Buffalo. There, for years, a criminal justice program has trained officers for local police departments and the New York State Police. Now, it sends graduates to Virginia, Georgia and Florida.

"To us, it's good and it's sad," said Timothy J. Dwan, a local judge who teaches at Erie. "Our kids are getting darn good jobs, but it's sad the South is plucking all the talent from the Northeast."

The Pied Piper of Erie County may well be Rick Veit, the employment manager for the government of Gwinnett County, Ga., just north of Atlanta. Gwinnett is one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation. This year, Veit needs to hire 30 to 50 police officers, no easy task when unemployment is 2.7 percent.

But Veit grew up in Erie County, and a couple of years ago, he got the bright idea of going home to recruit. He has hired 41 officers from western New York, 11 from Erie Community College alone, and visited the college again last month to screen more than 200 potential recruits.

Among them was Edward Smith, 29, who qualifies as a walking piece of Buffalo history: He works at a grain elevator, as his father and grandfather did. But the elevators, which were invented in Buffalo in the 1840s, are now mostly abandoned, and there is little to do at the few that remain. "We drink a lot of coffee," Smith said.

His friend Jeff DeLair personifies a current trend in Buffalo -- underemployment, in which people take jobs for which they are overqualified. Almost 127,000 workers in Buffalo have jobs but want better ones, according to a recent study. The jobless rate in Erie County is 6 percent, the highest of any major metropolitan area in the United States (the national average is 4.4 percent).

"It seems tough to get a job up here," said DeLair, 25, who has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice but works for a soda distributor. "The economy and the population; everybody's moving south."

People have been leaving New York City, too, but immigrants from overseas have more than made up for the loss. Buffalo once was a city of immigrants -- from Italy, Germany, Ireland, Poland -- but no more.

That means fewer workers. "The shrinkage in the labor force can create further pressures in terms of labor shortages," said Richard Deitz, an economist for the Federal Reserve Bank in Buffalo.

So despite today's relatively high unemployment rate, companies have to worry about finding enough workers in the future.

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