Sitting in his mother’s living room, Tuan Jones gesticulates, wide eyed, as he talks about the buildings that have gone up and the palpable excitement in downtown Buffalo.
Jones has cherished his time with family and friends since returning to his hometown after spending 14 years in the Navy, enjoying some of what the “New Buffalo” has to offer. When at a concert or festival on the shores of the Buffalo River, he feels the renewed pride and optimism that officials have been talking up and newspapers have been writing about in recent years.
“They’re down there and they’re fixing downtown Buffalo,” Jones said in the living room, with pictures of family members on the end tables and his nephew’s and niece’s toys neatly organized along the wall. “It’s way better than it’s ever done when I was a kid. Whatever the Buffalo Billionaires are doing, they’re doing it right.”
He loves to spend time in the now-bustling Inner Harbor, taking in a show or strolling along the boardwalk with his girlfriend, Rebekah, a childhood sweetheart he reconnected with on Facebook before returning home. Sometimes they walk up through the naval park, where a fleet of decommissioned ships and submarines float, as a warm breeze rolls in off Lake Erie.
But for Jones, 42, the long-awaited homecoming may not last.
As summer approaches, so does his graduation from a yearlong training program that will qualify him for machining gigs that start at $20 an hour, and higher in some cases. Shops all over the city are looking for talent as an aging workforce is retiring.
Still, his first few years back have kept his expectations in check. Before entering the training program, Jones, who works a graveyard shift at a mail sorting center in addition to his eight-hour training sessions, had a tough time despite all the talk of opportunity surrounding the city’s recent economic resurgence.
Since returning to Buffalo, Jones, who worked as an air conditioning and refrigeration specialist in the Navy, has been turned away from job opportunities time and again, at one point settling for a low-paying job in collections.
“I bust my ass. I just want the opportunity to get a great job.” - Tuan Jones
He has been speaking with a Navy friend who is considering a new program that would allow longtime service members to re-enlist, possibly as officers. If a good opportunity doesn’t come soon, he may have to return to Florida, where he has connections with the Navy and contractors.
But if a motivated veteran with hands-on experience can't find decent work in the “New Buffalo,” how well can less qualified residents, with more challenges, do in the state-fueled rebound?
Jones has heard what Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his local allies have promised, but those words mean little to him. He’s a man who works with his hands. In the shop, when he tapers or puts threads on pipe, he can remove the finished piece from the machine and measure it to see whether the work is right or wrong. As he prepares to look for a job, armed with a machining certificate, he’ll have to see if he comes back with something he can grasp.
“I don’t hold promises,” Jones said. “If I hold promises and try to hold somebody to their word I’m going to be dead because I’m holding my breath for this person.”
On a warm January day, shadows stretch across Northland Avenue, cast by the hulking, boxy factories that once filled the air with the tinny staccato of churning industry. Nearby streets are lined with homes, some more worse for the wear than others, interrupted occasionally by a vacant lot or two.
And amid of all this is the future home of the Workforce Development Center, set to open in 2017, where state and city officials hope to solve two problems at once: providing employers in expanding markets with workers and helping people desperate for steady work find careers.
In the former home of Niagara Machine & Tool Works and Clearing Niagara factory, where massive metal pressing machines were once built, 100,000 square feet will be refurbished into classrooms and workshops where people will be trained, initially in new energy technologies and advanced manufacturing, with the possibility of other programs being added later.
This is where Cuomo and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, in trying to spread the economic benefits to everyone in the city, have pushed most their chips to the center of the table, devoting nearly $50 million to build up a training and manufacturing hub. But they and other leaders have faced mounting scrutiny from advocates who are pressing the governor and his allies to follow through with their oft-repeated pledges that the the economically disadvantaged in the city, and not just developers, will benefit from the unprecedented state investment in the region, and that long-neglected neighborhoods will be built up along with the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and Inner Harbor.
And so it is here that the state, through the Empire State Development Corporation and the New York Power Authority, will work with the city to acquire surrounding land to create an employment and job training hive, with a special focus on recruiting people of color, those in poverty and the long-term unemployed.
On the surrounding properties, some recently purchased by the city, sit factory buildings, abandoned and in varying states of disrepair. Some will be demolished. Others will need to be remediated. All of this, officials hope, will lead to fruitful relationships with manufacturers looking to expand.
Chris Schoepflin, Empire State Development’s Western New York president, said that by attracting the kind of jobs the state will be training for to an area next to the training center, officials will create an environment where each moving part fits with the others – much like they are already doing with research, clinics and schools on the city’s medical campus.
“It’s not just about preparing a workforce (at the Workforce Development Center). It’s about creating a cluster of opportunities to work, employment opportunities, in that direct neighborhood.” - Chris Schoepflin, Empire State Development’s Western New York president
This system also aims to address obstacles to finding jobs or getting training by bringing in services like child care and health clinics, to be provided at little to no cost.
“We actually believe that we’re creating the most comprehensive, progressive, inclusive and nimble training centers, not only in the state but perhaps in the East Coast, perhaps in the country,” Schoepflin said. “We don’t have a lot of terrific models that are as broad and as comprehensive as what the governor has envisioned here.”
Schoepflin said other approaches, like offering training in high school, will continue, and will be linked to the training center when it makes sense. And while it is a steep climb after a prolonged legacy of economic exclusion, state officials believe that their plan will go a long way toward addressing the problems.
“To solve a long-standing and complicated problem, you have to get back into high school, I would submit, maybe the end of middle school,” Schoepflin said. “But I think that every initiative and partnership we can form as we work to implement the governor’s broader vision will each enhance what we’re doing here as a region.”
Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes grew up on Buffalo’s East Side. Her district includes the Workforce Development Center and many neighborhoods that have suffered most under the decades of disinvestment brought on by Buffalo’s economic downturn.
She knows the problems are complex and will require a multifaceted solution. The Buffalo Billion initiative on its own, she said, is simply not enough to address the underlying economic and racial injustice that has long been a part of the city’s DNA.
While the problems do need to be confronted, tying the money in the Buffalo Billion initiative to long-standing issues of institutional racism doesn’t always make sense, she said. Employers will eliminate resumes from the candidate pool based on names or ZIP codes, regardless of how much money is put toward training.
“They’re looking for everything but what’s the best person for that job,” Peoples-Stokes said. “That’s something that I personally can’t change. The Buffalo Billion can’t change that, either.”
Banks, insurance companies and the education system do less for minority and poor neighborhoods, despite anti-discrimination laws. For the neighborhoods in her district to emerge from the decades-long cloud of unemployment and poverty, the community as a whole will need to change attitudes toward race and class, a far more elusive task.
The change has to be brought on by convincing business leaders, political leaders and residents that everyone will be better off if those neighborhoods have an equal chance at success, she said, as when everyone is participating in an economy the strength of the whole is greater.
“The Buffalo Billion can’t change anybody’s moral perspective. What changes people’s moral perspective is education.” - Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes
To that end, the recently passed state budget allocates $2.75 million to replicate an anti-poverty initiative already underway in Rochester, which aims to bring community leaders and business leaders to work together to reduce poverty in the city by 50 percent in the next 15 years.
But even as the region as a whole has seen slow but steady growth, Buffalo will be in the same situation 10 years down the road without that change in attitudes toward race and class, Peoples-Stokes said. “It’s not going to help us move forward if we don’t bring everybody,” she said.
Peoples-Stokes isn’t the only state legislator who believes drastic changes are needed if the results are to be different. Assemblyman Sean Ryan has been pushing a plan of his own to help link people in need with available jobs.
With the backing of city clergy leaders, Ryan is pushing to form a state-sponsored employment agency, which he would call HIRE, modeled on for-profit companies, with an outreach arm concentrated in ZIP codes with the highest poverty rates.
“We found that unless the hiring for these jobs, like SolarCity, is targeted in some strategic manner, that the people who live in these ZIP codes will not end up working at SolarCity,” Ryan said.
The assemblyman hopes to secure $5 million for a three-year pilot to get the center up and running. By then, the state would be able to show companies results that would have them flocking to the program, he said.
To Ryan, there has been talk and panels and task forces on these issues for decades. It’s time, he said, to try something new.
“A lot of the old methods we’ve tried over the last 15 to 20 years haven’t moved the needle,” Ryan said. “So I think it’s time for a look at these things.”
When Cuomo visited Buffalo for a victory lap State of the State address in 2015, he told the audience that Western New York’s renaissance, just three years after he announced his commitment of a billion dollars for the region, was an “economic success story.”
“This has been an economic development turnaround for the books,” Cuomo said.
When he visited the Queen City again this March to celebrate a construction milestone for the University at Buffalo’s medical school, he claimed victory. While five years ago the city’s economic health was fodder for late-night TV hosts, Cuomo told the audience of political, business and education leaders, it is now the envy of upstate officials, who are working with his office to emulate Western New York’s success.
“The congratulations goes to you, because you did it,” Cuomo said. “And you did it the way success always happens, by putting aside differences and coming together and working together for a common goal with a lot of assets and a lot of talent and a lot of good people that want to make a difference.”
Cuomo’s regional allies – Brown, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster – have reinforced that narrative, time and again using words like “resurgence” and “renaissance” to describe the changes to Western New York.
While there is evidence to support that story – a boost in downtown housing, a construction boom, well-educated young professionals moving to the area for jobs – some troubling signs are coming to the surface.
The region has seen steady job growth, and analysts expect the trend to continue, but revised numbers showed the first contraction in six years in December and a much less robust jobs picture than originally reported by the state Department of Labor. Even before the revisions, Buffalo-Niagara was not keeping pace with the rest of country.
SolarCity, the tenant at Riverbend, the state’s main project in the Buffalo Billion initiative, has seen drastic drops in its stock price related to missed targets and a change in strategy reported to investors the last two quarters. While some analysts remain cautiously optimistic about the company’s long-term prospects, the developments, along with late payments to the contractors at the site and reports of an ethics investigation into the bidding of the project, raised questions about whether Cuomo’s “game changer” project is in trouble.
Meanwhile, advocacy groups, clergy and organized labor have called on Cuomo and other leaders to ensure that the newfound prosperity is not hoarded by those already at the top.
Cuomo identified reducing poverty and economic disparities as a reason for investing so much money in Buffalo. While the city and state have made efforts to create new job training programs and bolster existing programs, little movement has been realized in the numbers. Poverty remains high, especially for people of color, in a deeply segregated city.
No one expected problems in the making for more than 50 years to change overnight, but, despite the rhetoric, it’s not clear that the struggle to turn around the city is over.
Frederick Floss, a professor of economics at Buffalo State College and a former fellow at the Fiscal Policy Institute, is high on the way things are going in Buffalo. He said that what’s happening in Western New York now looks similar to what was happening in the late 1990s in Albany, where the SUNY Polytechnic Institute ushered in a transformation.
“Right now we’ve got this B-12 shot and we’re ready to run,” Floss said. “If this is a marathon, we want to make sure we can finish, which means you’ve got to do the right things.”
Floss said that with state funding secured for waterfront projects and the remediation of brownfields, the right environment had been cultivated over the years for the region to succeed. The Buffalo Billion was just the catalyst that set the wheels in motion on a more vigorous economic comeback.
“I think a lot of people essentially didn’t see the spade work that was being done that allowed it to look like it’s all happening right now,” Floss said.
In a city that has suffered through long periods of decline, it can seem unreal to have the backing of a governor who has brought jobs and the promise of many more. With new buildings going up instead of being knocked down, Western New York seems a world away from where is was a decade ago.
Now the challenge, Floss said, will be ensuring that, as Cuomo moves on to try to recreate his Buffalo model in other cities, Western New York remains a focus for the administration.
“We need to make sure that the governor stays committed to the project in Buffalo,” Floss said. “I think it’s important that he moved on to Rochester and Syracuse and Binghamton, because they obviously needed help.”
Without continued support, the gains can be undone in short order, he added.
“It’s not to say that they shouldn’t succeed,” he said, “but it does mean that the eye is off of Buffalo a little bit and that we have to make sure that we’re still pushing.”
Dick Lipsitz, the head of the American Labor Federation in Western New York, an AFL-CIO associated umbrella group, sees quality employment as the best way to fix the long-standing racial and social inequities that have persisted in Buffalo and across the nation.
His organization, which represents more than 100,000 union members throughout the region, has for months been working on different strategies, like targeted hiring requirements from poorer neighborhoods for any companies receiving public benefits. He is pushing for similar practices at the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, where he is chairman of the policy committee.
The fact that jobs are returning is undeniably positive. But Lipsitz’ group and others now must do what they can to make sure those jobs are equitably distributed and that the people getting in on the bottom floor, whether at SolarCity or a new hotel going up near the medical campus, make enough money to live, he said.
“We should use our strength to make sure everyone benefits from it as much as we can,” Lipsitz said.
And so ALF’s push has been based on deploying a variety of strategies in concert with a wide base of groups with similar goals. His organization helped fund a study detailing racial disparities in unemployment and pay. It signed on to a group backing the NY Renews green jobs and economic justice legislation being pushed in the state Legislature this session, and strongly supported Cuomo’s recently passed minimum wage hike.
Lipsitz’ organization is always working to grow union membership as well, as it is one way to make sure people are being paid well, he said, though organized labor has been hard hit, too.
If unions are able to recruit more members as job numbers rise, particularly people of color, the prospects of reducing the gaps in racial disparities become much better, he said.
“Unionized jobs, for comparable work, make 35, 40 percent more than non-union,” he said. “We’re all about making sure those jobs are unionized because it’s a way of making sure there’s higher wages for everybody.”
However, Lipsitz cautioned that everyone should be mindful of how different things are. Having been involved in organized labor in the city for decades, Lipsitz has had a front row seat to the decline.
“We can talk all we want about wringing our hands, ‘It’s not good enough,’” Lipsitz said. “But tell me what was good about what was going on before. There was nothing. Buffalo was a dying city.”
Sitting in the home where she has lived for the more than 50 years, Christine Jones beams with pride as she talks about her son.
Tuan, her firstborn, sits across the living room attempting not to blush as she talks about his work ethic, his smarts, his baby face.
“I’m just so happy to have him home,” Christine says.
Now she and her son are left wondering whether he will be able to stay. With his graduation from a manufacturing training program just weeks away, Tuan wants badly to remain in Buffalo.
If he can’t find a good paying job after devoting a year to retraining, however, he might be better off going somewhere where he will earn enough to send money back home.
That might help him fix up his mother’s house. Since coming back, Jones has helped his mom by painting interior rooms and making electrical repairs. But the century-old home where Christine has lived since she was a teenager is showing its age. It needs a new roof, and the outside paint is due for a new coat.
Other houses in the neighborhood are in worse shape, or gone altogether. One neighbor has a massive side lot where houses once stood. Stately brick homes are abutted by houses with plywood over the entrances. On an early spring day, McDonald’s wrappers and Tim Horton’s coffee cups were strewn about front yards. Behind the house across the street, a garage has collapsed in on itself and lies a pile of debris.
While Jones is earning some money at his night job, it’s not enough to pay for major repairs. And between the training and work, he doesn’t have time to do the repairs himself, even if he could afford the materials.
“It’s just not enough,” he said.
But the neighborhood where Christine has spent most of her life, where her son grew up and is again living, is changing.
In some ways it’s improving.
Between the Jones’ front door and the corner on Main Street, a light pole is surrounded by stuffed animals – a white rabbit, a purple teddy bear, a brown monkey – affixed with plastic wrap and packing tape. A young man was killed there about two years ago, but that was the last time someone had been murdered near their house, Tuan said. There has recently been a greater police presence, he said, mostly transit cops who patrol a nearby train station, and the violence is down.
Now, more and more people are leaving the neighborhood as demand for housing has stretched north from the nearby medical campus, with speculators offering buyouts.
Christine’s block, it seems, is heading in a different direction. It remains uncertain whether it will continue to include her family.
“It’s sure not like it used to be,” she said.
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