(Photo courtesy of Tech2gether)
The second day of this month’s Tech2Gether conference in Wilmington was keynoted by a “passionate Buffalonian.”
Yep, Jordy Levy a venture capitalist from Buffalo, N.Y., told a crowd of Delawareans that Buffalo and Wilmington may have much more in common than one might think.
"We don’t celebrate our entrepreneurs and we need to do that."
He knows his history, too.
In 1900, Levy said, Buffalo was the rail and grain capital of the U.S. It was the nation’s eighth-largest city (in the 2000 Census it ranked 58th). It had the most millionaires per capita, even sporting a “Millionaire’s Row” on a leafy stretch of Delaware Avenue.
But now, a city that once boasted a population of nearly 600,000, is home to just about 260,000.
And Levy and others — including some community and government leaders — want to turn the tide in Buffalo by increasing commerce, attracting younger residents and promoting technology.
Sound familiar, Wilmington?
“Our fathers, they fucked this place up and we’re not letting them do it anymore,” he said. “We started a process and we’re going to change the way Buffalo is perceived. We realized a bunch of assets we could take advantage of. The city is the soul of our community.”
"This woe is me attitude has to go away. We’re going to make Wilmington the epicenter of the corridor for the next 50 years."
As a venture capitalist, Levy said he’s interested in investing in technology, but also celebrating the people behind the next big idea.
“In Silicon Valley, they look at the next pizza shop as the next Pizza Hut or the next Goodfellas,” he said. “We don’t do that in Buffalo and we probably don’t do that here [in Wilmington]. We don’t celebrate our entrepreneurs and we need to do that.”
In Buffalo, the city freezes its canal in the winter so it can be used as a skating rink. Levy said that rink has already created a marketplace by adding restaurants and children’s attractions. With the hockey culture in Buffalo, the community plans to bring more of the sport to younger people through a hockey academy. Downtown, they’re hosting free concerts and free yoga events, which draw in about 500 people each.
“It has changed attitudes,” Levy said. “We’ve had luck, but I still say we have to do something about it. Look at other cities — Zappos is making Vegas something special. Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans is a native of Detroit and passionate about the city. He’s spent hundreds of millions to revitalize it. It’s working because he’s putting his muscles into it.”
Levy is helping to create an accelerator program, Z80 Labs, for Buffalo technologists, by leveraging relationships throughout the region.
“We’ve got to put a stake in the ground. We can longer watch the decay of this city,” he said. “We’ve created an attitude that there is a startup community.”
Innovate NY was recently started to support innovation, job creation and high-growth entrepreneurship across the state with $45 million — $35 million from New York State and $10 million from Goldman Sachs. This, Levy said, is a step in the right direction.
The state, Levy said, has also created income tax-free zones in upstate New York that some say are working. Seven companies — including IBM, which has 500 jobs downtown — can now offer no state income tax for employees.
The Buffalo region also recently hosted a business plan competition — 43North — with large cash prizes for the winners.
The competition received 7,000 applications from 96 companies, which spanned all 50 states and every segment of the market, Levy said. The field was narrowed down to 11. ASi, LLC, of nearby Tonawanda, N.Y., took home the top $1 million prize.
So what should Wilmington learn from this?
“We changed attitudes with this business plan competition. A local organization didn’t win, the whole region won,” Levy said. “[In Buffalo] they can succeed here, our kids can stay here and maybe they can come back and do the same thing here.”
Wrapping up his remarks, Levy also touched on Delaware and told attendees at the conference to embrace the First State’s location. He said Philadelphia doesn’t have the tech cred it thinks it does, and Baltimore and Washington, D.C. aren’t doing much either.
“Take advantage of it. You can be in Philly, D.C., Baltimore — you’re close, but you can live in a great environment. It makes more sense [to be here] than being in any of those places. You’re in the middle of them all,” Levy said. “This woe is me attitude has to go away. We’re going to make Wilmington the epicenter of the corridor for the next 50 years.”-30-
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