As some of you know, I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. I haven’t lived there for nearly 50 years, but due to an unhealthy interest in the Buffalo Bills (be kind to me), I visit Buffalo several times a year. I know a lot about Buffalo.
Although their historic trajectories are different, Buffalo and Hartford are similar. Buffalo’s core city and metropolitan population once was much larger than Hartford’s – Buffalo shrank considerably to get to where it is now. Today, the two cities have similar metropolitan populations (around one million, depending on how metropolitan area is defined) and similar struggles. Buffalo once was a major manufacturing city; Hartford once was a major financial/insurance city. Both need to revitalize their economies and to grow again.
Both cities have several colleges and universities. Both have nationally recognized art museums and reasonably active cultural scenes. Both have geographic advantages – Buffalo has the Great Lakes and proximity to Canada and Toronto; Hartford has the Appalachian Mountains and proximity to Boston and New York City. Buffalo has major league hockey and football; Hartford lost its hockey team and couldn’t capitalize on an opportunity to acquire a football team. Believe it or not, western New York’s fall foliage rivals New England’s.
Many people love living in western New York. Many people love living in greater Hartford.
Same-sized cities, similar economic challenges as they face the future. Buffalo’s core population of 260,000 is governed by one city government; Hartford’s core population of 370,000 is governed by eight separate town governments (the City of Hartford and seven surrounding towns). Many of greater Buffalo’s services are provided by the county government; Hartford has no similar region-wide governance structure.
For a couple of generations, parents in greater Buffalo told their children to leave the area and make their futures elsewhere. Greater Hartford parents have been saying the same thing to their children for a couple of decades..
But here’s something different: Buffalo wants me back. Okay, maybe you’re thinking “they can have him,” but still, Buffalo wants me back.
Maybe Buffalo just wants my money, but they say they want me, too. Buffalo is actively recruiting its ex-patriot children, people like me who spent their childhoods there and moved away. Buffalo recently held a three-day, high-end, invitation-only seminar for expats. They want me to learn how Buffalo is moving forward. They want me to move back to Buffalo and invest.
Think about that for a minute: in the Hartford area we’re still telling our children to move away. In Buffalo they’re running seminars to bring their children back. Is your town actively recruiting prodigal children to return and invest?
As the baby boomers sell their houses in Newington and Windsor, in West Hartford and Wethersfield, where will the buyers come from? Home buyers follow from employment. If people are moving to your community to take good jobs, the home buying will take care of itself. So what is your town doing to attract employers?
Attracting employers town by town is pretty tough going. In fact, it borders on impossible. Employers, big employers, need to be recruited by the region, not by towns.
Do you think it’s easier or more difficult for Buffalo, one city speaking for 260,000, to recruit employers than for Hartford and seven towns speaking for their citizens separately?
How do I know Buffalo has a big advantage over Hartford and seven towns when it comes to economic development? Because I see it when I visit Buffalo. Buffalo has cranes. Hartford doesn’t. Buffalo has developers scouring the city for investment opportunities, and they’re finding them, with or without help from the city. Buffalo doesn’t need to beg developers to “please consider us.” Housing prices are rising. Employers are returning. Retail is thriving. Buffalo wants me back.
Hartford isn’t asking your kids to come back. Hartford isn’t asking employers to locate businesses in your town. Why not? Because under our governance structure Hartford doesn’t care about your kids and your employers; those are your town’s problems.
When someone builds a Blue Back Square in West Hartford, Hartford and the other towns grouse that it wasn’t in their town. When someone builds a Blue Back Square in Buffalo, the whole region celebrates.
It’s easy to see that Buffalo’s unified governance structure works better than greater Hartford’s fragmented structure when it comes to economic development. It’s both logical and obvious on the ground.
I’m not claiming Buffalo is the poster child for good government – much of Buffalo’s governance is as dysfunctional and messy as any other city. A cynic would say that Buffalo’s advantage over Hartford is that Buffalo has only one dysfunctional government, while greater Hartford has eight. What I am saying is that when Buffalo does something, everyone does it together. Greater Hartford doesn’t.
Terry and Kim Pegula own the Buffalo Bills (NFL) and the Buffalo Sabres (NHL). They chose to invest two billion dollars in Buffalo teams despite Buffalo’s problems over the past 50 years. They’ve supported major projects to help revitalize downtown. They’ve combined their interests in their teams and in Buffalo’s future into a movement they call “One Buffalo.” One Buffalo T-shirts and caps and billboards can be seen all around town. One Buffalo exists primarily to promote their enterprises, but the Pegulas know that One Buffalo also is a frame of mind and a motivating force for sustained, positive growth and change.
We aren’t close to “One Hartford.” How can we even talk about One Hartford when we don’t have one school system, one police department, or one public works department? We don’t have one of anything except a water company. We’re separate.
If greater Hartford is going to move forward, if greater Hartford is going to be a place where we tell our children to stay, we first have to be one Hartford. There’s a lot that goes into being a truly unified community, building and growing together, but there’s one clear and almost certain prerequisite: greater Hartford has to be one city. We can’t work together if we govern ourselves separately. Rational, unified government for greater Hartford is the first step on the road toward one Hartford. Every day we postpone that step is another day we tell our children to leave.