Invest Buffalo Niagara represents the eight counties of Western New York and they are the region’s nonprofit, privately funded economic development organization focused on job creation. Jenna Kavanaugh, the COO of the organization discusses targeted industry growth, talent retention, workforce development, and scaling businesses in Buffalo Niagara. She also shares her experience with people moving from the New York Metro area to less dense, but amenity-rich Buffalo Niagara.

When people came here, they were falling in love. We know how sticky our community can be once you’re here. It’s easy to really fall in love with this low cost, but amenity rich and friendly community.

Episode Highlights:

  • 02:48 – It’s easy to really fall in love with this low cost, but amenity rich and friendly community.
  • 04:37 – We have worked to develop workforce development training programs for people that either want to up-skill or expand or transition their careers.
  • 05:27 – We launched in September of 2019, an initiative called Be in Buffalo to attract people back to the Buffalo Niagara area.
  • 07:40 – Jenna shares how they are reaching out to people that used to live here, especially in occupation specific talent after the pandemic.
  • 10:03 – M&T Bank recently announced a thousand jobs with a tech expansion of the Buffalo Niagara region.
  • 13:13 – There have been several movies filmed here over particularly the last five years.

For information about
buffaloniagara.org
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Episode Transcript:

Jenna Kavanaugh 00:00 

Pre pandemic we had worked to develop a workforce development training program for people that either want to up-skill or expand, or transition their careers. And then manufacturing in particular. This includes an advanced manufacturing training center as well as the utility of the future and clean energy training center. In IT, this includes a new tech academy for people who really want to supercharge their tech careers and everything from data analysis to coding, to digital marketing; it’s this access, but really affordable access to these types of programs. That’s important, especially right now.

Fabiola Fleuranvil 00:45 

You’re tuning into the Economic Development Podcast presented by Blueprint Creative Group. This is the second part in the series where we speak with economic developers around the country, especially in these challenging times to learn about their outlook for the industry, moving forward, targeted industry growth, talent retention, workforce development, and everything else that affects the work of economic development. Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Jenna Kavanaugh at Invest Buffalo Niagara. She is the Chief Operating Officer. Hi Jenna. How are you?

Jenna Kavanaugh 01:17 

Good. Thank you, Fabiola, for having me today. I really appreciate the opportunity.

Fabiola Fleuranvil 01:22 

Yeah. So thanks for joining, you’re in one of those markets that I think is pretty interesting to be in right now, as we’re seeing how the pandemic and the shifts in the industry are affecting the New York Metro and what that may mean for some feeder markets like yours. How does that look from your perspective?

Jenna Kavanaugh 01:40 

Well, it’s interesting even before the pandemic we saw some of the bigger cities really losing their allure. And of course the pandemic has caused disruption across the board. We do believe strongly that the Buffalo, Niagara region is a less dense, low cost city, but still offers so many amenities and access to other major metros is highly attractive to both, not just people, but companies leaving bigger cities.

Fabiola Fleuranvil 02:12 

So with that said what has talent retention looked like or even talent attraction? Maybe it’s too early to even quantify it from those who are leaving the New York Metro region. But if you had to put some anecdotal estimates to it, what would you say that’s looking like right now. Because I mean, we’re hearing how Silicon Valley is going through the exits you know, companies, people, businesses are exiting California. There are some fears of that happening in the New York Metro as well. So is Buffalo receiving some of that? 

Jenna Kavanaugh 02:48 

Well, even pre-pandemic, we had a lot of people moving to Western New York for wonderful job opportunities. People were looking for an easier commute, housing choices, recreation, and cultural opportunities, vibrancy, and authenticity. And we’ve had some great high-profile wins and announcements, a wonderful startup. And when people came here, they were falling in love. We know how sticky our community can be once you’re here. It’s easy to really fall in love with this low-cost, but amenity-rich and friendly community. For those that aren’t familiar with the Buffalo Niagara region, we’re located in an incredibly unique area in the US nestled between two great lakes on an international border, very culturally rich with four seasons of fun, historically significant. But I think we’re in the middle of this wonderful resurgence and the pandemic started, but there were a couple of things that we’ve been investing in over the past 10 to 15 years that have made a particularly significant difference in terms of keeping people here, retaining them in our region and continuing to attract them.

And I think that is an investment in the amenities of our region plus access to those amenities, great investments, and great outdoor parks, revitalized waterfront cultural institutions. We repurposed former warehouse districts into attractive neighborhoods. And the other thing that has been very important pre pandemic, we have worked to develop workforce development training programs for people that either want to up-skill or expand or transition their careers. And then manufacturing in particular, this includes an advanced manufacturing training center as well as the utility of the future and clean energy training centers. In IT, this includes the new tech academy into people who really want to supercharge their tech careers and everything from data analysis to coding, to digital marketing; it’s this access, but really affordable assets to these types of programs. That’s important, especially right now.

Fabiola Fleuranvil 05:11 

So you’re essentially saying that your talent growth has been planned and coordinated as well, right? Because I believe that you have a focus purely just on talent attraction, correct?

Jenna Kavanaugh 05:27

Exactly. We launched in September of 2019, an initiative called Be in Buffalo to attract people back to the Buffalo Niagara area. And that’s just one component of our region’s overall workforce development plan is attraction and retention. We have had a really collaborative, strategic focus between our state municipal university business partners all working together on many of these efforts.

Fabiola Fleuranvil 06:00

Well, let’s dig deeper into that because talent attraction these days looks a little different than before. And I mean, as an example, I’m looking at what Miami is doing and how they’re capitalizing on the tech sector and the VC world exiting California. And how they’re really driving I mean, I would say it’s a quasi marketing campaign for talent attraction. I don’t think it’s so formalized just yet. Because it seems to have happened more grassroots and organically than it’s been planned. So talent attraction looks probably different these days in different regions and for different reasons, especially since the shift to quality of place is kind of adjusting where talent tends to populate.

Jenna Kavanaugh 06:52 

Right. And I think it would be very interesting to see how, what matters to people as we particularly come out of the pandemic and what matters to businesses and where they put their focus. Our efforts right now, and leading into this have been really targeting people who already have a distinct connection with our community. That’s been a big priority. And that is such as graduates of our colleges and universities, as well as folks that grew up here and moved away. Our region has 21 colleges and universities and that’s annually 100,000 students and 25,000 students graduating.

Fabiola Fleuranvil 07:36 

So essentially you’re like a college town.

Jenna Kavanaugh 07:40 

Yeah. So in many ways it’s a big college town. The pandemic has obviously made people feel isolated. And I think it’s, for many of us, which really highlighted the importance of family. And this is a time when people need a support network. So we’re particularly doing a lot to reach out to people that used to live here, especially in occupation specific talent. Some of the areas for us include manufacturing, tech sector, finance, and health sciences in particular. And I think what’s great to see is the affordability of our region, especially the ability to buy a home here. And I’d say not just any home, we have such incredible walkable neighborhoods and our cities, our suburbs, and rural as well. There’s just great options for where and how you want to live your life. And in this region, there’s a lot of historically significant architecture with charm. And we’re very proud of that sense of community that you find when you come to Western New York. And that’s very important to people right now as well.

Fabiola Fleuranvil 08:54 

Well, you said something that drives an earlier point because whereas Miami is going outside of the market to those who may, who probably don’t have a Miami connection, you know, and attracting them in and selling them on the typical Miami amenities and lifestyle. What Invest Buffalo Niagara seems to have done really well is focusing on your homegrown talent and even retaining your students and making sure that they’re not exiting and finding career opportunities and the lifestyle that they want elsewhere. So keeping who you already have home, and then giving a reason for those who’ve left home to come back.

Jenna Kavanaugh 09:38

Absolutely. And I think… and for those that have no affiliations, wonderful career opportunities that we have here people are also finding that as well.

Fabiola Fleuranvil 09:49 

Okay. So just for our own insight, since the pandemic, which industries would you say have shown the greatest promise that otherwise may have previously been underperforming or stagnant for your region?

Jenna Kavanaugh 10:03 

I don’t know that they were previously underperforming or stagnant, but I do think that this is, you know, really highlighted some of the strengths. As I mentioned before, as we hit the pandemic we were in the midst of resurgence, we have wonderful startups including our first software unicorn ACV option. M&T Bank recently announced a thousand jobs with a tech expansion of the Buffalo Niagara region as such growth clusters, particularly in financial services, IT and manufacturing. Think one of the things about our region is that there continues to be a tremendous amount of innovation happening with great partnership. We see that with our universities, including University of Buffalo, fabulous research institution, business to business collaborations, we have the burgeoning medical campus. And what we’re really seeing in terms of industry growth is just forward thinking innovations and green energy technology, FinTech solutions, life sciences, and we’re also seeing food and beverage processing, continuing to grow.

Fabiola Fleuranvil 11:18

That’s interesting food and beverage in the Buffalo region.

Jenna Kavanaugh 11:22

Yeah. That has been a core strength of ours for some time. Huge industry for us in particular, a lot of cheese, yogurt manufacturing, but we also see a lot of packaging and food processing. The beverage industry has been strong and growing. And during this time when businesses are deciding across the nation, across North America, where do I need to be, to be closer to my market and my customers, this is a great location to establish a food processing, packaging, distribution facility. Also, I would tell you notably in the last couple of months, we had two major different announcements for the construction of state-of-the-art film and TV production studios for our area. And I think that kind of goes to some of the investments in our amenities and our communities speaks to some of those investments over the last several years.

Fabiola Fleuranvil 12:31

Wow. Interesting. I want to ask a question regarding the food sector. Are you seeing some growth in ancillary food sectors, like say food tech or agricultural tech?

Jenna Kavanaugh 12:43 

We have seen. Actually some, particularly startups in that area, but a lot of what we’re seeing in particular is the innovation of new products, new health products come online in our region.

Fabiola Fleuranvil 12:58

Okay. Sounds good. So this has been very insightful. I really appreciate your input. Is there anything, but I know you did say that there is the film and production facility that’s being built. So that’s something for us to look forward to.

Jenna Kavanaugh 13:13

We are excited to see our film and TV productions expand in the region. There have been several movies filmed here over particularly the last five years, and we’re really excited to see that growth as well as the development support businesses around that industry.

Fabiola Fleuranvil 13:32 

So exciting, so that’s something for us to look forward to. So I appreciate you sharing your insight with the economic development podcast.

Jenna Kavanaugh 13:40

Thank you very much for your time, Fabiola.

Fabiola Fleuranvil 13:42

Thanks for joining. Thanks again for tuning into the Economic Development Podcast presented by Blueprint Creative Group. There are more episodes featuring economic development leaders throughout the country. And we thank all of the participants for sharing their perspectives. Check out all of the episodes in this series at blueprintcreativegroup.com/economicdevelopment.

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