Only Accidental Success

26 Jan

Will you join me in a little mental exercise? Try to think of a successful major development, in the City of Buffalo in the last five years, that was the Mayor’s idea. Do you have any yet? Any grand scheme Mayor Brown proposed, and didn’t just take credit for at the ribbon-cutting? Any plans conceived of, or implemented by, his office? How about the Common Council? Any new ideas from there? Yeah, I can’t think of any either.

Okay, let’s try this instead. I’ll name (arguably) the biggest four positive recent develops in Buffalo, and tell me if the Mayor had anything to do with them: M&T’s and First Niagara’s rise to make Buffalo a national banking power, the redevelopment of the Larkin District, establishment of Buffalo as a top sports hosting city (NCAA Basketball Tourney, Empire State Games and the World Juniors in one year ain’t bad), and the creation of the surging Medical Campus. Was the Mayor involved at all? Not that any of us can tell.

In fact, it is only when one considers the two biggest development FAIL stories of the last year, the inability to create momentum at Canalside and the Statler fiasco, that you find the Mayor’s and Common Council’s fingerprints.

I don’t think its too much to ask for the Mayor of a city the size of Buffalo to have some vision for the future, some direction he (or she) wants to lead us to, some policy that will meet some desired end state. Buffalo is not exactly rudderless. There are people here who have plans. They just aren’t elected politicians.

Bob Wilmers and John Koelmel have a plan, and were recently validated by industry experts that Buffalo is the new Charlotte (ironic, since Charlotte is full of the old-Buffalo). Doug Swift and Howard Zemsky have a plan at the Larkin District, and after single handedly reviving a couple square blocks, additional private capital is flooding in. The Convention and Visitor’s Bureau may be underfunded, but they made attracting sports (and the tourists who travel to attend them) a goal, and have several years worth of success to point to. James Kaskie at Kaleida and John Simpson at UB have a plan, and there is $500M in new construction and 30 bio-tech companies in the Medical Corridor. Jim Allen, President of the Amherst IDA, who Chris Smith recently interviewed, has a plan. Hell, even PUSH, MAP and Urban Roots have plans, and localized impacts. The Mayor has no plan, and no vision.

Let me provide one small example, one tiny crumb where he could show leadership. The battle over Erie County arts and cultural funding is completely out of proportion with the size of the budget line – $4 or $5 Million, depending on which side you are on. Ironically, nearly every cultural cut out of county funding is in the City of Buffalo. Meanwhile, the disgraced Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp is sitting in limbo, not handing out grants for nearly a year, while its staff still collects a paycheck and twiddles its thumbs. It takes about twelve seconds of thought and half an ounce of leadership to convert the BERC into a new Buffalo Arts Fund. BERC has $40M in assets and could hand out $5M a year. That would double local governmental arts funding, and if the arts are such a development driver (as its supporters purport), then plenty of economic renaissance should be happening too. Don’t worry, there are plenty of other ways for companies to get government hand outs, and all BERC used to fund were restaurants and barber shops anyway.

Will the Mayor propose this? No. Will the Mayor reform BERC into a true economic development tool? I doubt it. Will the Mayor craft, announce, promote and drive a vision of Buffalo’s future? Will the Mayor lead? Don’t hold your breath.

Author’s Note: As astute and regular readers have already noticed, starting today I will be writing two columns weekly, instead of my normal three. My new schedule is a political or development column on Wednesday, and an ETU outdoors column on Sunday. Never fear, this is only temporary! I am in the throes of finishing my first book and need a little extra time and mental energy as I come down to the sticking point. If all goes according to plan, the book will be finished this summer, and my normal three-a-week schedule will resume then.

12 Responses to “Only Accidental Success”

  1. Ethan at 10:03 am #

    Yep; we elect petty, transactional politicians.  

    The question I would ask is: how can we change that?  Because you’re right that there is no lack of future-oriented, visionary minds in the area… how can we attract them to office, and how can we get people to realize that you shouldn’t vote for Mickey–or Byron–because of what they’ll do for YOU.  We need to vote for people based on what they’ll do for US.

  2. STEEL at 10:15 am #

    I have never understood the concept of striving to achieve a place of power and influence and then doing nothing with it. The Mayor, just by speaking and throwing ideas out there, can make a major difference.

    To be fair he has initiated a major rewrite of the code. If that is successful it will be a major accomplishment.

  3. STEEL at 10:18 am #

    His absence on the Statler debacle though is hard to understand.

  4. Christopher Smith at 10:22 am #

    He’s a caretaker mayor, at best, at a time when we need a visionary leader with an eye on transformational thinking and new ideas. His major policy achievements were putting up cameras on street corners and a plan to randomly demolish 5,000 properties in 5 years…not in any concerted way around a cohesive plan, just a house here and a house there and a building over there. Leaving the city further filled with vacant pockmarks.

  5. Christopher Smith at 10:23 am #

    @Steel, I wouldn’t say he “initiated” the rewrite of the code, that was an example of the public demanding progress and the Council and Mayor conceding. I suppose you can say at least he let it happen, but it wasn’t a major goal of his and it kind of fits under the “accidental success” umbrella that Brian is writing about. Still a good thing though.

  6. Brian Castner at 11:51 am #

    @ Ethan: Visionary and transactional don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I don’t care for transactional, but in the service of a grand vision it would be welcome compared to what we have now.

    @ STEEL: I wish he was absent on the Statler – then we might have a little benign neglect. Instead, it appears the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing is hurting the situation, not helping. And on the code, I agree with Chris’ take, but I am suspicious it will ever be implemented well, even if adopted.

  7. Gabe at 11:54 am #

    Brian you’re right, Lord Byron hasn’t accomplished jack shit. An attempt to implement cittstat because someone on his staff watched a couple episodes of The Wire, doesn’t count. The legalized game of bribery we call Democracy seems to have failed at every level of government; Buffalo is a poster child of how it functions so poorly on the local level.

    And I agree that we lucked out with Wilmers. He was smart enough to refrain from ever getting M&T all mixed up in the stupid ponzi casino economy that sunk so many other institutions. “Steady as she goes” sometimes actually wins the race.

  8. BobbyCat at 1:40 pm #

    Never met the mayor. But his idiosyncrasies tell a story. He speech is very deliberate and precise, almost cautious, choosing his words carefully, seemingly afraid to mis-speak. His practiced cadence is very similar to MLK. Not by accident, I’m sure. It’s hard to imagine that he’s that deliberate in private. People like that are often afraid to make decisions. His utterances on TV are very well crafted and elegant- much like his suits. But of course he rarely says anything of consequence, just empty rhetoric.

  9. BobbyCat at 2:41 pm #

    Len Lenihan, the Dem Chairman (or the Don, if you like) gives the kiss of approval to all the imcompetant leaders that we have come to expect along with their caretaker governments and the unqualified or underqualified and inexperience people – the party faithful – who they appoint. Once in a while a competant person sneaks-in, although no one seems to know how that happens. And for decades before Lenihan, was Joe.

    Their criteria for a “successful” candiate/leader is: Can he win? Unqualified and inexperienced candidates are assured they will grow into the job and get all the coaching and help they need. When Jack Kept was first elected to office he could not string two sentences together to make a coherent argument. But of course he later went on to bankrupt the country under the Amiable duncemanship of Ronald Reagan. But I digress.

    If the party chairmen would insist on recruiting qualified and experienced people with real ideas, this area would not be in depression. I blame the chaimen. They will argue that its very very difficult to recruit the best talent. I’m sure it is. Maybe we need more persuasive and dynamic Chairmen.

  10. Probuff at 9:14 pm #

    Unfortunately for all of us… The guy just isn’t a leader and isn’t that smart.

  11. Ethan at 4:27 pm #

    Visionary and transactional don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I don’t care for transactional, but in the service of a grand vision it would be welcome compared to what we have now.

    They don’t have to be, but they usually are.  To be visionary is to be a risk-taker.  The transactional pol is very much the opposite- doing everything he or she can to reduce the risk of not being re-elected.


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