Saturday, March 14, 2015

Water: The Niagara Frontier’s economic driver

If any one thing could account for the past successes of the Western New York economy, it’s water.

When the Erie Canal opened in 1825 it made the region the gateway to the West, offering a navigable trade route connecting the Atlantic Ocean to Great Lakes. It was an engineering wonder that cut transportation costs by 95% and improved delivery times by weeks. WNY became a commercial hub and Buffalo one of the most important cities in the United States.

But, the golden years of the Canal lasted about a half-century. It was made almost useless by the advent of the United States’ vast rail network that, by 1869, connected coast to coast.

It wasn’t long after that, though, that the area experienced yet another economic boom driven by water. In the late 1800s power plants began to develop along the Niagara River, including the world’s first large-scale power plant to produce the alternating current so important to the efficient delivery of electricity and, therefore, industry. That technology harnessed the limitless power of the River to create vast amounts of electricity and whereas many other cities saw electricity as a luxury, Niagara Falls was able to take it for granted. This brought manufacturers by the droves to the Falls, which became an industrial Mecca for the first half of the twentieth century.

But, after World War II, things changed. Affordable electricity was no longer specific to WNY. Vast hydroelectric projects popped up all over the country and power generation technologies that used coal were refined in the 1920s and again in the 1940s, making that an accessible and cost-efficient means to power homes and businesses. Niagara Falls lost its edge. Then, it lost its businesses and residents. Now, the corridor along the River looks like a manufacturing ghost town. The City itself is similarly unattractive, its population one half what it was in 1960.

But, there is hope, hope in that substance which boosted our economy in days gone by: Water. It’s time again that we leveraged that asset to bring about a new age of prosperity to WNY. Later this century – and right now for that matter - water has a very good chance of being the new oil, a substance so rare and necessary that governments (even neighboring municipalities) will compete for it and sell it at a premium.

We’re fortunate here in WNY that water abounds. We have the Great Lakes, the mighty Niagara River, and hundreds of streams, ponds and lakes filling our landscape. Other places, including those where Niagara’s businesses and people migrated to, aren’t so lucky. There, water is at a premium. There’s barely enough now and, as those communities expand, they are guaranteed to be lacking in the future. Georgia, Texas, and California are just a few of the states that have experienced absolutely frightening water woes over the past decade.

This puts the Niagara region in a unique position to profit from other people’s despair. Corporations and people need certainty when it comes to water supply and you can’t get much more certain than our backyard.

Over a half-dozen years ago the Niagara County Center for Economic Development began marketing the region to water-intensive industries in hopes of attracting new businesses. It’s something that they continue to this day – the March newsletter of the IDA made mention of their marketing efforts to water starved states.

Until only recently, very few development agencies in the Great Lakes had followed suit – despite the seriousness and scale of the growing water shortages and how water could be a silver bullet for ruined economies like Detroit’s. This has put Niagara County in the lead based on both moxie and available natural resources.

It is hoped that their continued efforts and the frustrations of southerners and westerners combine to bring companies both big and small back to the region. We definitely have the resources and we must use them (intelligently, though, with an emphasis on the state of the environment) to recreate a robust WNY economy for this and future generations.

From the 16 March 2015 Lockport Union Sun & Journal

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