Saturday, February 13, 2010

Super-regionalism: WNY and the GTA

From the 15 February 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

(Editor’s note: This is the final part of “Four Ways to Save WNY")

A good many Western New Yorkers have looked at Ralph Wilson as the anti-Christ ever since he turned the Buffalo Bills into a part-time resident of the city of Toronto.

Their assessment is quite unfortunate because Ralph Wilson is a genius for that pursuit and we need every man, woman and child to follow in his footsteps. The merging of the Niagara-Buffalo region, economically and socially, with Southern Ontario is without a doubt the most important thing that we can do to achieve the best possible future for WNY.

It’s not a stretch to say that most people in the area tend to look at Canada as a strange, far away land and that our world seemingly ends at the Niagara River. It’s almost as if we chose to ignore that Ontario is in our backyard and, oddly enough, believe that Rochester or Erie, PA – both of which are farther away than the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) - are more appropriate parts of our lives. Those blinders – based in either ethnocentrism or a misguided fear of the unknown – need to be cast aside.

The area from the border to just past Toronto is aptly named “the Golden Horseshoe”, a c-shaped territory along Lake Ontario that comprises some of North America’s greatest riches. It is home to 8.1 million residents and the Canadian headquarters of the world’s largest corporations. To put that into perspective Niagara and Erie Counties, the most populous of WNY, are home to only 1.25 million people and a depressed economy that is but a shell of its former self.

Were we to open our eyes, our minds, and our borders to our friends to the North, we’d be able to capitalize on their sizable economy and its potential for growth (the Golden Horseshoe’s population is expected to expand by 40% over the next two decades) by manufacturing the products and providing the professional and high-tech services they need. But, at this time, it’s easier said than done.

For starters, the border offers a significant hurdle. In the name of national security both nations have tightened up their vetting process at the gates, slowing traffic to a crawl and accounting for waits at the bridges that typically exceed one half hour for passenger cars and are considerably longer for tractor trailers. That’s a ridiculous amount of time when one considers that Toronto is only an hour away from the Rainbow Bridge. Few businessmen, workers or customers possess enough patience to deal with such delays on a regular basis. It’s virtually impossible to plan your day around it as you may get through the border in five minutes or fifty of them. In order to promote the easy cross-border movement of people and products both governments must fully man each crossing and expedite the screening process. The Canadian government, especially, must find ways to temper the insane number of strikes/slowdowns that their border agents go on.

Secondly, businesses need an effective means by which to network and connect with one another. Many Canadian and American companies have a hard time figuring out how to crack the market and do business on the other side of the River. I’ll admit, even I have found it extremely difficult to properly market Confer Plastics to companies in the GTA. What companies like mine and countless others need are the local chambers of commerce – like the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the Niagara USA Chamber – and their Canadian counterparts to focus on what their name implies: Commerce. They sometimes host mixers and networking events for smaller companies in their own communities. What they don’t offer are similar events on a larger scale for their bigger clients, US-Canadian matchmaking events that would connect a manufacturer in Lockport with another one in Hamilton or a software firm in Mississauga with, say, a hospital in Buffalo that could use its services. Basically, local business groups and their member companies need to think less parochially and work together to address a macroeconomic need.

There are some people – visionaries if you will - who see the importance of greater trade with the GTA. You might choose to not listen to the Buffalo Bills front office since football teams are so “sacred”. But, if you ever get a chance to catch a speech about bi-national trade from Ken Franasiak of Calamar you’ll be really impressed about what the larger WNY/GTA region is and could be. It’s time that others followed that vision and extended the Golden Horseshoe past the Niagara River, taking it to Rochester and beyond. There’s no reason why the GTA’s prosperity shouldn’t rub off on us.

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