Published On: Thu, Feb 11th, 2016

A Manufacturing Renaissance…in Buffalo?

Can the rise of green-energy manufacturing breathe new life into former industrial regions thought to be well past their prime? Could once-vital rust belt cities emerge as hubs of a new manufacturing economy? If what’s happening on the banks of the meandering Buffalo River is any sign, the answer is yes. The development of a major solar cell manufacturing plant is just one factor in such a renaissance. And with the construction of new manufacturing hubs like this one, it’s not hard to imagine a powerful ripple effect. After all, even new industry requires traditional nuts and bolts hardware: everything from light bulbs to valves to roller conveyors.

Buffalo has caught the attention of economists and business developers all over the nation looking for resurgence stories. Once an industrial and manufacturing powerhouse, Buffalo was the shipping gateway to the Great Lakes and the midwest, including Detroit and Chicago. Early on, it was the Erie Canal terminus, and countless barges delivered material into the middle of its downtown core. Combine this port infrastructure with a dense network of rail interchanges, and it’s easy to understand why Buffalo was the nexus of many industries, including some of the largest names in the steel business. 

photo Stefan Krause, Germany

photo Stefan Krause, Germany

This mid-size city saw a steady decline in the 20th century. Closing steel mills, shuttered grain elevators, and a port largely bypassed by the St. Lawrence Seaway meant the end of Buffalo’s manufacturing glory days. As the manufacturing and shipping jobs left the area, so too did much of its population. The result was a decaying urban core, a flight to the suburbs, and an unfortunate legacy as a “has been” city. 

So what’s all the buzz about?

For one thing, Buffalo has finally achieved something locals have long dreamt about but doubted would come to fruition: real development of its waterfront. Located at the convergence of Lake Erie and the Niagara River, and less than a half hour from the world famous Niagara Falls, Buffalo has long sought to make the most of its waterways in a post-industrial era. In just the past five years, the city has transformed a vacant, dilapidated part of its downtown into a vibrant hub of year round activity. This includes the construction of Harbor Center, which, combined with the nearby First Niagara Center hockey arena, provides the only three-rink venue in the NHL. New retail, hotels, restaurants, and other attractions have sprouted up rapidly—and the growth keeps coming.

Buffalo’s legacy as a manufacturing base may be a draw for other companies in future years. The old adage may prove true for cities like Buffalo: “Everything old is new again.” As new technologies emerge, a resurgence of manufacturing and development could occur in the very places that once hummed with industrial might. The Buffalo River, which as recently as 10 years ago had dangerous levels of pollution, has undergone a major dredging, and water-reclamation initiative. Standing on its banks now, one can gaze out at the shiny new Solar City manufacturing plant and wonder if the city it calls home will see a similar rebirth. 

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