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Commentary: It's a River, Not the Iron Curtain

By Steve Banko

Buffalo, NY – One of the great failures of our community is our continuing inability to extend regional thinking across the Niagara River. We have the advantage of being part of the longest continuously undefended border in the world but with few exceptions, we tend to look at the Niagara River as something akin to the old Iron Curtain. It is time that we stopped ending our regionalism at the riverbank and started including Ontario's "golden horseshoe" in our thinking, planning and marketing.

The controversy of the day in our area is hospital closing. But what would happen if we started thinking regionally about hospitals without borders? We have excess beds at a time when our Canadian neighbors are facing extended wait times for medical care. They have need and we have capacity. Does that sound like a fit? Certainly the structure of Canadian health insurance presents some problems in the accommodation of Canadian patients in American hospitals but when we have trade agreements wrapped around the world like kite string, those problems could surely be worked out. After all, we speak the same language (for the most part), don't we? I know of Canadian citizens who have come to Buffalo and paid out-of-pocket for tests like MRIs simply because the waiting period for such tests on their side of the border can reach six months. This area has long counted health care quality and opportunity as a regional strength.

So what do we do? We get recommendations to start cutting that resource back. What prevents us from looking more regionally at strengths and weaknesses and matching solutions and problems? We fight like crazy to save buildings we deem historically significant so why are we willing to sit back and watch regional assets dismantled?

D'Youville College has recognized that we are one region and has done a great job with trans-border marketing. When my daughter Colleen earned her Master's degree from the College, a lot of her classmates were Canadians. Unlike virtually every other international border in the world, there is no language barrier here to accompany the international boundary. D'Youville has recognized a international need and taken effective steps to fill it. If Sister Denise Roche can do it, why can't our hospitals? Why must we diminish a vital resource when so many people on the other side of the river might benefit from it?

It might also help Erie and Niagara counties to understand that as metropolitan Toronto spreads farther south we can be part of that metropolis. While housing costs in Toronto rival those in New York City, Boston and San Francisco, Buffalo has some of the lowest housing cost in the United States. Can anyone begin to see a strength matching a weakness? The News Washington bureau chief recently wrote in support of a new vision for rapid transit and advocated the light rail line's extension to its envisioned terminus at UB's Amherst campus. At $200 million a mile for subterranean transit, we could think more regionally and use surface railroad right of ways to extend rapid transit to Niagara Falls. In so doing, we might be able to allow visitors to the Falls easy transit between Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

And if we think really big, why not a high speed train connecting Buffalo and Toronto? Might we be able to entice those working in Toronto to take advantage of our housing economies if we could make the trip more of a commute than a tryout for NASCAR.

Instead of speaking to common opportunities to match challenges and opportunities, we are discussing ways to make trans-border egress more difficult. It would be a shame if our planning myopia resulted in another failure to see possibilities and opportunities in the challenges we face.

After all, there is only a river separating us from our Canadian neighbors.

Listener-Commentator Steve Banko is field director for the Buffalo office of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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