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By Stephanie Brooks

Walking into Robert Pike’s 110,000-square-foot immaculate operations, with clean-shaven, smiling engineers and welders typing commands into advanced computers, it’s hard to believe it’s the site of a heavy manufacturing plant that produces 100,000 tons of Hollow Structural Section (HSS) tube for use in hydraulic fracturing every year

Or that it sits on what was previously the largest steel production site in the United States. Or that it’s located in Buffalo, New York.

“Thirty years ago, 25–30,000 people worked on this site. Nobody in the community today thought they would ever see manufacturing back at the Bethlehem Steel Site — or probably any industry whatsoever,” says Richard Tobe, deputy county executive for Erie County.

As Pike, the vice president of Welded Tube of Canada puts it, “we’re bringing steel back to steel town.”

But it’s not the same industry as that of yesteryear.

Modern-day makeover

“It’s so different now; it’s not smokestacks and dirty water. It’s very clean, has a lot of advanced technology and spin-offs into the economy,” says Tobe. “We have this major turnaround — the industrial economy is coming back and I think we’ll be able to produce the workers of the future.”

Previously dubbed ‘Rust Belt City,’ Buffalo-Niagara has reinvented itself as a hotbed for business opportunity, attracting numerous Canadian manufacturers to locate in the region to take advantage of a low tax rate, skilled workforce, low-cost hydropower, affordable real estate, logistics — and to overcome the obstacle of Buy America policies hampering their ability to enter the US market.

The trend proves success at home leads to success in the States. Canadian manufacturing companies expanding their operations to Buffalo is a positive sign Canadian manufacturers are growing, adds Tobe.

Pike says Welded Tube wanted to have a presence in the United States in case the border was shut to them, prohibiting the company from selling tube manufactured at its Concord, Ontario, location to the south. “Buffalo was a logical choice because of its proximity to our Welland heating facility, the tax breaks we got for the brownfield investment, and the manufacturing capability we have here,” adds Pike.

The company was able to build the first phase of its advanced manufacturing facility in one year on 45 acres where it can produce 100,000 tons in a one-shift operation. It was able to make the operation a reality with the facilitation of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise’s (BNE) resources, including on‑the-ground experts and vast network of business relocation professionals.
“Workers are so excited; they’re happy and proud to be here,” says Pike.

And his story is not unique.

The revival of industry and infrastructure being ushered in by entrepreneurial, savvy and risk-taking Buffalonians is helping draw many Canadian businesses in. Great entrepreneur-investor relationships as well as a productive synergy between the public and private sector turn around infrastructure and developments in record time — changing the area’s depiction from Steel Town USA to a diverse economy.

Where manufacturing works

“It’s one of those great turning points in peoples’ perception about our own community,” explains Tobe. “Manufacturing is here to stay.”

And if the numbers are any indication, it’s true. The GDP for the Buffalo-Niagara manufacturing sector was more than $6.9 million in 2010; that’s 14 per cent of the region’s total GDP and in the top 25 per cent of US regions. The industry is Buffalo-Niagara’s third largest in the economy, and more than 20 Canadian businesses have established themselves in the region since 2011.

One of which is Cambridge, Ontario-headquartered NutraBlend Foods — a manufacturer of whey protein powder for the sports nutrition sector. Having expanded three years ago with a 65,000-square-foot facility in the Buffalo-Niagara area, it is now able to mark the “Made in USA” stamp on some of its products and reach a wider American and international market.

It was also able to take advantage of an accessible pool of workers in the area, says General Manager Fred Doxbeck, who oversees about 60 employees per shift.

With 10.8 per cent of Buffalo-Niagara’s total employment in the manufacturing sector and the area’s two dozen colleges and universities breeding new innovative minds, skills are a priority, especially in light of the aging manufacturing workforce.
“We have about 17,000 workers likely to retire by 2020,” says Erie County’s Tobe.

This is a situation not unfamiliar to manufacturers located in Canada, of which about 50 per cent currently feel a shortage of skills in their facilities. In fact, Buffalo and Canada do have quite a bit in common — more than just our mutual love of hockey.

We share railways, waterways, a border, flow of businesspeople day-in, day-out, and the critical ability to compete and win in local and international markets. And now, we increasingly share manufacturing counterparts.

But it was not always this way. The effects of a fading industry left Buffalo an image of a bygone era where boarded-up factories and run-down residences were the norm. Twenty, even 10 years ago, it didn’t look the same as it does today.

“Although there is still a big metal industry in the region, what mostly stayed from the steel industry boom in Buffalo was the work ethic and productivity,” says Paul Pfeiffer, director of investor and public relations at BNE.

Today, it’s where manufacturing works. And incentivizing those making the move are the plenty of other businesses contributing to the area’s renewal. Refurbishing buildings for enhanced or mixed-use is commonplace throughout the city and surrounding areas — from hotels to hospitals, office space, and more.

Risk and rewards

Howard Zemsky was a champion behind the re-creation of not just one building, but an entire district near Buffalo’s downtown core. As the managing partner of Larkin Development Group, Zemsky was instrumental in turning Buffalo’s earliest commercial area into what is now a vibrant, mixed-use community known as Larkvinville.

“We’ve gone from being spectators in economic development to holding the ball,” he says.

Dating back to the 1800s, the area was the city of Buffalo’s first manufacturing district, boasting the iconic Larkin warehouse building and rail terminal at the centre of it. After years of neglect, the building saw a substantial renovation in 2001 and now houses modern office space, a childcare centre, fitness facility, conference amenities, food services, and retail.

Originally, revisiting the building and area was an unorthodox idea, says Zemsky, but he saw a market opportunity.

“What’s happening now here is symptomatic of what’s happening in the greater Buffalo region,” he adds. “There’s been a paradigm shift — you can take greater risk.”

That risk has paid off — for Zemsky and for developers across the region that are helping to modernize the city. These people are helping regenerate structures like the Avant building, the Lafayette Hotel, Buffalo Lakeside Commerce Park, Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus and Harbor Center, which in turn, are breathing new life into the community.

These are examples of innovation at work — risks that emerged as great rewards, for both the city and its people.

“If you build it, they will come,” concludes Zemsky.

And so they are — including those from the north. 

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