The Buffalo Question

11 Aug

I’d like to pose a couple of questions to the entirety of Western New York.

  • As a city, what are we doing well? Do we excel at anything?
  • As a region, what are we doing well? Do we excel at anything?
  • What broad based municipal goal(s) are we moving toward?
  • How will we know when we’ve achieved that goal?
  • Who is measuring progress towards achievement?
  • Who is held accountable if we fail to achieve that goal?
  • What do we want to look like as a region in 2020?

Let’s start with government for now and we’ll use Chicago as an example.

Ten years ago, Mayor Daley’s stated strategic goal was to build one of the most diverse economic environments in the world. A healthy mix of financial services, education, health care, construction, manufacturing, retail, etc.

He believed that planning for such an environment ultimately creates the opportunity for arts and culturals to succeed and a tax base is grown to foster the delivery of public services. This is all done in the confines of a greater regional framework in which the city exports wealth to the suburbs. They value urban planning and place a premium on excellence. Their approach is such that the government creates the opportunity for the market to thrive. Unlike Buffalo, most decisions in a city like Chicago are not made on an ad hoc basis; there is a vision, plan, goals and success. Measurement and accountability? Fuck, it’s Chicago, no one is held accountable. But, they get the bigger picture.

Or lets focus on our neighbors to the near north, Toronto. Those crazy canadians are silly with plans.

Here is the strategic vision laid out for 2010 by the Mayor.

Building upon that framework of ideas, the city council and other city agencies built their own plans and established measurable goals and markers for progress.

Chicago and Toronto are models for planning excellence. What can we learn from them? What are we doing that is similar? In this instance, size of the metro doesn’t matter, it’s the planning and the execution.

So, as a city and region, what are we doing well? Are we marching toward an overarching, unified goal?

We might be doing something well in town/city/county government, arts and culturals, urban planning, economic development, private sector business, anything.  Seriously, what are we doing well?

This exercise has a dual purpose.

  1. If we can’t readily identify what it is that we are doing well, we have a larger problem.  We’ll need leadership interested in setting goals, establishing measurements for progress and building a consensus to accomplish them.
  2. If we can identify a core list of successes, we should find ways to transfer the methodology to other projects and issues.

This month marks six years since I moved back to Buffalo. After all of that time, I’m still not certain what it is we are trying to accomplish in this region. Nor do I know who is empowered to make decisions to move the region forward. Nor do I know if anyone is doing anything well.

So, lots of questions, but a jumping off for a discussion for the rest of the week.

17 Responses to “The Buffalo Question”

  1. Bruce Beyer August 11, 2011 at 7:35 am #

    I don’t think pointing to the present right wing, homophobic ideologue, idiot of a Mayor of Toronto speaks highly of planning accomplishments. But I do understand what you’re saying.

    • Christopher Smith August 11, 2011 at 9:48 am #

      Bruce, I agree about the new Mayor of Toronto. I should have mentioned the strategic plans were writen and submitted by his more progressive predecessor.

  2. Bruce Beyer August 11, 2011 at 7:36 am #

    In fact, Mayor Ford seems intent on rolling back all the planning decisions of the past forty years.

  3. James August 11, 2011 at 8:10 am #

    It’s interesting that you present this column on the same day that Bob McCarthy has this article in B News.

    For almost 20 years the citizens of North Buffalo and University Heights have been working on building a greenway on the abandoned rail line. This is in the City Comprehensive Plans and Bicycle Master Plan.
    This would include a rapid transit extension through Tonawanda. Commercial and residential development is encouraged around the LaSalle transit station. Shoshone, McCarthy Parks would be connected.
    The money in the article has been available for ten years. The County has finally made efforts to accomplish this. The City is another story as you can see from “Colvin Estates”.

    There are many community planning efforts in the City. It’s another matter getting City Hall to listen.
    This article is a great thought challenge. I’m thinking. Thanks.

  4. William August 11, 2011 at 8:22 am #

    There has never been a need for any type of strategic plan for the city of Buffalo because the majority of the residents within the city limits simply do not care enough to ask for.

  5. Jesse August 11, 2011 at 8:36 am #

    I might ask whether or not we NEED answers to these questions.  You guys talk a lot about building organically and just getting the infrastructure right (canalside).

    Do we really need to “excel” at anything?  Can’t we just be a solid middle-class American city?  Do we really need to find a “broad-based municipal goal” other than just to be as efficient as possible in delivering the basic services a community requires and then getting the hell out of the way?

    It’s obvious, given the parochial fighting and midget empire building going on that we don’t generally want the ‘region’ to look like anything come 2020.  We probably have goals for our little corners, our little fiefdoms, but that’s it.  Regionalism is a great idea and really should win the day, but it’s failed big time around here, sadly.

    • Alan Bedenko August 11, 2011 at 8:45 am #

      Chris and I discussed yesterday off-blog the difficulty of messaging and bipartisanship on the federal level. When you’re constantly playing tug-of-war, you’re not actually getting anywhere. You’re staying in the same damn place, just trying to get the other side weak & muddy first.

      Locally, I think the discussion should be had about Byron’s epic ineffectiveness as a leader of a declining city. He is constantly preoccupied with political posturing, while ignoring big picture items. I realize that the state has a huge hand in what goes on at Canal Side and on other projects, but the only time Byron gets involved is when (a) there’s a camera around and he wants to get in on the publicity; and/or (b) to ensure that he gets his opportunity to spread the “member item”-like money around for his own political advantage. Seriously, he’s a better-spoken, smarter version of Antoine Thompson. The guy’s never taken a risk, ever on any big issue. He doesn’t stick his neck out for anything except himself.

  6. Russ August 11, 2011 at 8:54 am #

    What’s it going to take?  The rot spreading well through the first ring suburbs before people Lancaster and West Seneca and Amherst realize that what happens in Fillmore matters in Clarence Center?

    People here just don’t care about more than the 1-3 square miles around them.

  7. pirate's code August 11, 2011 at 9:04 am #

    @ Jesse — “Do we really need to “excel” at anything?”  Yes, I think.  To excel at something, even something small, would show that the city/region, its leaders and its citizens care.  As it is today, we give the outward appearance of caring about nothing, except not caring.

    @ Jesse — “Can’t we just be a solid middle-class American city?”  Sure.  I’d argue that that would be an upgrade from today so, there, we have a goal.

    To Chris’ questions in the original post, it is hard for me to identify anything that the city or the region really excels at.  There, I believe, at least a few things we do well — basic utility services (sewer, water, garbage collection, etc.) and recreational opportunities come to mind — but it’s hard to say that we excel at any of that given the region’s history of waste, bloated bureaucracy and fiefdom protection.

    As for a shared plan or vision for 2020…no.  I don’t see one, nor can I identify an individual or group who is working towards one.  Ideas here are treated like whack-a-mole…as soon as one pops up, there are any number of people or groups ready to tell you why it can’t or shouldn’t work. 


  8. Ray Walter August 11, 2011 at 9:41 am #

    I know most who comment on your site consider me a partisan hack and lap dog for Chris Collins so I’ll just add to that a little bit here. I’m going to give you two links on the County’s website – one is to the vision that Collins laid out 3 years ago called Erie County’s Road to a Bright Future. It does a nice job laying out the regions key strengths and how we need to market and optimize those strengths.

    The second is a link to the Economic Development Checklist – this allows you to view each component of the “vision” and lists accomplishments that have helped achieve parts of those objectives.

    Say what you want about the County Executive’s style or his tactics or his politics but isn’t this exactly what you are looking for?

  9. RaChaCha August 11, 2011 at 9:59 am #

    As far as plans for regional advancement, the regional council potentially presents a window of opportunity — at least in terms of economic development. I say potentially, because it may be up to “us” what we make of it. There’s lots of unknowns, because it’s a brand-new process that hasn’t been fleshed out, because there may not actually be a lot of State money behind it, and we don’t know how effective the council will be or even to what degree it will really affect things.

    Opportunity to move forward–? Or, in the end, “meet the new plan — same as the old plan” (but with a new cover and better graphics)–?

    BTW, there’s an article in today’s Artvoice that also attempts to grapple with some of these questions. Some guy who’s name I’ve never seen in Artvoice before wrote it — looks like he was clearly in over his head…

  10. Brian Castner August 11, 2011 at 10:43 am #

    @ Jesse – My logic train goes like this: if there are parts of Buffalo you like, then we need to grow to preserve them. Even if you are in the “I like Buffalo the way it is” crowd, our slow decline will still gradually eat away to the parts we like and want to keep. If we are going to grow, we need a plan. We can’t rely on reputation, atmospherics or momentum to grow – we need to attract residents with an economy and opportunity, and 50 years hasn’t produced those things organically. So I see Chris’ question as relevant to even maintain the parts we like, much less transform into a more modern, progressive, green, wealthy or whatever else region.

    To Chris’ question, I think we do one planned thing well: the Medical Campus. Nationwide, I think it ranks as a solid B. Many communities are throwing in with Eds and Meds, so its existence does not equal success. But it is doing real research, providing real services, and building small but real companies.

    Otherwise, I think the only other things we do well are unplanned. Or to put it another way, unrelated to government, central planning, municipal visions, or tax incentive programs. We have great neighborhoods, soccer and hockey leagues, and a culture of supporting local endeavors. National restaurants and retailers have a smaller than average foothold in our region because we still like and eat at our local options – in much of the booming south and west, local restaurants are barely a blip on the radar. And finally, and not be undersold, is the very real sense that ambitious/creative types can make of themselves whatever they wish. There is a log jam in the business, service and union communities, as older workers have no where to move up, and younger workers (if they can get a job at all) rot in low responsibility positions “doing their time” and waiting for senority. However, if you break out of that, you can start a brewery, build a political website, be the Buffalo Pundit, be a Sabres blogger, start a non-profit, or write a book because there is space and sunlight to grow.

  11. great question August 11, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

    “To forget one’s purpose is the commonest form of stupidity.”

  12. Black Rock Lifer August 11, 2011 at 2:45 pm #

    @Brian- To your last point, Buffalo is a place where an individual can make a difference and not be lost in the crowd. I have often used that same argument to defend my choice to stay here in Black Rock and keep plugging away at improving my community. We are fortunate to have an open field for growth, no problem finding opportunities if you are smart and willing to work hard. The problem in WNY is how do we provide a decent opportunity for those with less than average ambition or intelligence.

  13. jimd August 11, 2011 at 9:00 pm #

    I think there are a lot of things we excel at. The philharmonic, Kleinhans, Sheas all draw the suburban dollar. Summers are abundant with concerts, festivals etc. We barely glance at a winter storm, our highways are clear in no time. I’d like to see more things like pond hockey in the winter to draw people downtown. The medical corridor is huge and prospects look good for it only to get better. On the downside, I feel we need to figure out a way to replace the oft lamented manufacturing jobs. This may take care of itself however. With the weather pattern for the next decade or so indicating sustained droughts in the south and west along with god-awful tornados, sooner or later people and businesses are going to notice tiny little wny that does not deal with that crap and start migrating back here.


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