By Donn Esmonde
It is the voice waiting to be heard, the seed yet to take root, the helping hand we have not yet grasped.
It means jobs. And money. And a hope to rebuild Buffalo in the same way it was built: as a place where ships dock and goods are unloaded and railroad boxcars wait to be filled.
Think of it: Buffalo as a port of call instead of a point of no return. Buffalo as a place of warehouses and factories and assembly lines.
Trade is the engine driving the global economy. We can get in the game. It is the same mantra for a city as for real estate: location, location, location.
We sit at the end of a Great Lake, connected to the world by road and rail. There is a place for us on the global trade map. This is neither folly nor a fever dream. It is about what we already have and how we can use it.
Folks like Pat Whalen, who grew a multimillion-dollar trade business, have been preaching the idea: Turn Buffalo into a port of entry, or an off-load hub, for goods from the Far East and Europe. More folks are listening.
“There is a lot of potential,” said Luke Rich, a consultant with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, “for jobs that pay like manufacturing jobs.”
The manufacturing jobs we have are leaving. But the global economy – especially trade from growing Goliath China – is here to stay. It would be nice for once to be victors instead of victims.
I am no expert on international trade. I can’t even navigate eBay. But folks who know say we’ve got a shot at this. In most places, trade doesn’t get people’s pulses racing. But if it means jobs for Buffalo, I’m hyperventilating.
The new container ships from Asia are too big to fit through the Panama Canal. So they take the “Suez Express” to Eastern ports. New York and Philly already are bursting at the seams. A cheaper, quicker way is to head to Halifax and then by truck or train to Buffalo – the closest U.S. hub.
If we get our act together – always a big “if” – we can grab a piece of the global economy. Warehouse jobs. Assembly plant jobs. Manufacturing jobs.
Brian Crowley thinks so. Crowley is from the Atlantic Institute, a Canadian think tank. He came to town recently to talk about Halifax helping Buffalo.
“World trade patterns are changing,” said Crowley. “[Buffalo] has the opportunity to put itself on the trade route from Asia to heartland America.”
Hey, it beats working at the burger counter.
This is not another start-from-zero, play-catchup folly. As a border city, nearly everything we need we already have: roads, rails, waterways, customs brokers, trade attorneys, international banks, trade experts. It is all about us – who and what we already are.
“We don’t have to create this [infrastructure], it’s already here,” said John Manzella, a global trade specialist who lives in Amherst. “We can plug into the global supply chain, create jobs and bring investment. We just have to get our head out of the sand and get in the game.”
That may be easier said than done. Some business leaders haven’t warmed up to the idea, a failing that one executive privately blamed on “overcautiousness.” We need to expand one of our rail yards. But a handful of investors already have a toe in the water. Politicians, notably the mayor, county executive and Sen. Chuck Schumer, are lining up.
“[Buffalo] has the geography,” Schumer said, “the infrastructure and the nexus of rail, water and roadways to again become a hub of international trade.”
Nothing is a sure thing, and this wouldn’t be the first time we let the world pass us by. But the biggest risk, as trade specialist Manzella said, “is not doing anything at all.”
To be blunt, what do we have to lose?