One of the guys I drink beer and watch sports with grew up just outside of Erie, Pennsylvania. Don’t confuse him with a Cleveland anything. He considers himself a Buffalo brother. Sometimes, we joke about how our favorite beverage would taste just a little better if only it had been brewed with Lake Erie water.
Flash back to my college days. Might have been 1977 or ’78; might have been the Buffalo Evening News or the Courier-Express. Some Okies had taken out a full-page ad; the page didn’t contain too many words, as I recall. But I remember the big, bold ones in the center of the page.
“TLSA: All that’s missing is you.”
The 1970s was a time when many forces – some from within – wrecked my city’s economy. Those forces led this 21-year old who needed a job after college, to take Uncle Sam up on his offer to send me to Texas, where I’d learn to dress like an Air Force lieutenant. I always thought I’d return home, but then life started to happen – and here I am all these years later, still an expatriate. One of the many tens of thousands – or maybe it’s really hundreds of thousands throughout the United States who used to call the Buffalo area “home.”
Flash back to an argument I used to make to my college buddies as to why Buffalo would again prosper, even as companies such as National Gypsum, General Mills and Bethlehem Steel were in various stages of leaving or downsizing their local footprint. “One day the oil will run out, and we’re going to need industries that are based on water.” Everyone laughed at me. “Maybe not in our lifetimes, but it’s going to eventually happen,” I’d counter. Eventually, after routinely being branded as an intellectual peanut, I stopped saying things like that out loud.
Well it turns out I may have had a shortage of the wrong liquid in mind, but “eventually” may actually be on our doorstep today. A recent set of articles in the Buffalo News has exposed how cities such as Milwaukee are starting to take the lead in leverage the abundance of fresh water in the Great Lakes Basin, to economic advantage. And some editorialists have asked, “Why not Buffalo?”
We can use the Great Lakes upon which to build our economy in a much smarter and greener way than the first time around. We don’t have to wreck them, as we almost did in the 20th Century.
As recent droughts and a historic spat of wildfires have taught other areas of the country how vulnerable their economies are to natural shortages of water, Western New Yorkers sit in the midst of one of the greatest treasures on God’s green earth. Or, blue earth. Whichever you prefer.
I used to be mad at Tulsa. That ad they used to run in the Buffalo papers in the 1970s felt like a knife wound. Of course, anyone who moved to Tulsa for a better opportunity might argue that I had an immature, short-sighted and parochial view of things. Maybe now it’s time for Buffalo to once again use water – in a wise, environmentally responsible way – to again become what it was for generations of immigrants and fortune-seekers between the 1820’s and the 1920s: a magnet for people from all over the world, in search of a better life.