Archive | September, 2011

Thoughts on the #BUFTruck Council Hearing (UPDATED)

30 Sep

As promised, here are my thoughts about the Food Truck public hearing at City Hall yesterday:

1. It was striking that only one person spoke in opposition to the food trucks.  John Fusco of Zetti’s has become something of an unintentional internet phenomenon with his focus on restrooms and his strong New York accent, but upon reflection, boycotting these restaurants isn’t the answer. I know Fusco, and he’s a good guy. I disagree strongly with what he said, but I appreciate that he was the solitary truck opponent to get up and voice his concerns. I have a bigger problem with the other restaurants, who put on a conciliatory public face while trying to kill or hyper-restrict the trucks.

2. The truck owners were very eloquent advocates for their cause. Pete Cimino of Where’s Lloyd was especially passionate and really killed it.

3. The Common Councilmembers who were present (all except Mickey Kearns) all seemed to indicate that they were willing to pass a law to regulate (in a good way) food trucks, and are concerned about the time, place, and manner details. This is the sausage-making that most people ignore, but is critically important.

4. The resolution at the end of the meeting was that the trucks and restaurants put their heads together and come up with a set of rules that everyone can live with. It is hoped that recommendations from this advisory committee will be completed within 30 days, in the hope that the law can be changed by November.

5. Going back to that word – “regulation”. It sometimes gets an undeserved bad rap. Regulating food trucks with time, place, and manner restrictions is a massive improvement over the status quo, whereby the trucks are prohibited from working the streets and setting up just about anywhere except on private property, or in locations for which they have a permit.

6. The story told by architect and developer Steve Carmina was startling. He owns a building at Main & Mohawk that likely wouldn’t have been leased had Lloyd’s taco truck not set up there and made that corner a destination of sorts a few days per week. That stretch of Main Street is especially bleak and depressing, but when that truck is there, it acts as a magnet for people from all over the city and region. He gave the truck credit for that pedestrian traffic and resulting economic activity, which in effect revitalized that corner.

7. There has been some “first world problems” and “stuff white people like” type criticism over this issue. I get it. But scratch the surface, and this is an issue that has plagued Buffalo for years – the city’s business friendliness. There’s loads of reasons why Buffalo’s downtown business district is a bleak shell even between 9 – 5 on a weekday.  Further restrictions on mobile businesses will only help to perpetuate that – ease them and perhaps it’ll change.

8. The food trucks are at a seasonal disadvantage. When the temperature drops, their customers won’t take kindly to standing in line for an extended period of time exposed to the elements. The regulations the city imposes should be eased between November – March to let the food trucks more easily find customers.

9. Two people spoke, expressing to the Council that they were prepared to invest huge money into their own food trucks, but not until the legal uncertainties were resolved. That’s the real-life consequence of slow action on needed legislation.

10. It’s great that people are taking an interest in this political process.  Hopefully, they’ll recognize that almost all of Buffalo’s problems have political solutions and they’ll become more involved and active.

11. I will try to keep on top of the committee’s work and report what sort of progress is being made, and what sort of nonsense might be taking place.

12. The legislative process is silly and slow, but the city, her leaders, and their staff are listening. A petition posted earlier this week has garnered over 4,300 signatures solely based on social media.  Each time that petition was signed, that signature was sent via email to each Councilmember and the head of Buffalo Place.

13. The Mayor’s office has been characteristically silent. Typical. Why is he letting the Council lead on this issue? Why isn’t the Mayor taking a stand one way or another – why isn’t he saying anything about what is at its core a story about how the city deals with businesses, and how quickly it adapts to novelty? To my mind, Byron Brown should spend the next week sampling the wares at each of the trucks, listening to their concerns and stories.  He should be thanking them for enhancing the quality of life downtown. Because he’s a politician, he should also be listening to the concerned restaurants.  He should also then be using his office to be a leader, and help bring about a fair resolution that is a win for everyone. We don’t have a mayor like that, apparently. This issue underscores what a disappointment that is.

UPDATE: 14. I forgot to add the most important part. SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL FOOD TRUCKS. 

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Live-Tweets from the #BUFTruck Hearing

29 Sep

The Tweets are in reverse chronological order – the newest one is at the top. I shouldn’t have done it that way, but it’s the way Twitter is read, and it was how it sort of fell together.

I’ll write more about my thoughts later, but the Tweets from various attendees speak for themselves.

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The Food Truck Public Meeting: What to Expect

28 Sep

1. It will be in room 1417 of City Hall at 10am on Thursday September 28th.  In case the crowd is too large, there is a strong possibility that the meeting might be moved to the legislative chambers on the 13th floor.

2. You will have an opportunity to speak, if you wish.  Look for a sign-in sheet. There are no restrictions on who can speak, but it is likely that your comments will be limited in time, and that they be relevant to the matter at hand.  Tailor your remarks in such a way as to zealously advocate on behalf of the food trucks you love, while recognizing the legitimate concerns that existing brick & mortar restaurants have.  If you have specific recommendations or ideas, bring them up – don’t assume that it’s obvious, and don’t assume it’s already been thought of. If you have researched the matter and can point to specific provisions of actual laws that have been enacted in other cities, cite them.

3. This is not a bitch session. This is your opportunity to be heard with respect to some real, positive legislative change that will put Buffalo ahead of many other cities in the state. If you’re a Buffalo booster – young or old – this is a big deal.

4. Come with your mind open. Do not presume that all restaurants are opposed to food trucks. Do not prejudge what the councilmembers’ opinions or positions are. If someone speaks on behalf of a business association with which you disagree, listen respectfully. When you’re doing something novel – when you’re ahead of the times – there’s a lot of hand-wringing and anxiety that goes into that. Be respectful of others’ viewpoints, and expect them to be respectful of yours.

5. The matter is not going to be resolved tomorrow.  You will not walk out of there having witnessed a new food truck law being debated and enacted. This is just one part of a lengthy process, which will continue to evolve and be discussed and debated – both privately and publicly.

6. The meeting will be live-streamed. Look for it here at WNYMedia.net.

Rewind: A Collins Carol (2008)

28 Sep

‘Twas 2008, and the county was screwed
the people were not in a holiday mood.
The taxes, they said, were quite high, thanks, enough,
and people agreed that the times were quite tough.

On a floor called sixteen, a man crunched up some numbers
Six Sigma, he thought, would drag us out of our slumber.
Amid raises for managers, programs were cut.
The lawmakers’ charges, he’d always rebut.

In order to pay for his raises so steep,
the people’d fish money from pockets less deep.
Thanks to meltdowns and layoffs – economy dire,
taxpayers had little up there to admire.

But lawmakers thought they could do him one better
and changed his proposals – some letter by letter.
They cut all the raises, revived some dead funding,
and wondered, who died and made this guy the king?

On the floor of sixteen, Collins grew quite enraged,
and the comptroller soon had to become more engaged.
Explaining to Collins his budget was faulty,
but not using language one might think was too salty.

He told the lawmakers that they were wrong, too.
Their outlook was based on too blissful a view.
A budget like theirs, higher taxes required,
a result that really quite no one desired.

The leg passed its budget, some vetoes were used.
The leg overrode some, those cuts they refused.
Then from the Rath Building arose some weird chatter.
The People then wondered, “NOW, what was the matter?”

It seemed a dispute had arisen quite great,
as to which branch of power could set the tax rate.
The executive said, he’s the man with the pen,
while the leg thought that it could. It told him, and then…

To court they all went, led by Lynn Marinelli.
against Collins and Green, (I saw her on the telly).
Judge Feroleto granted Lynn an injunction,
who argued that Collins had usurped a leg function.

Then Judge Peradotto, the leg soon lamented,
ordered that Collins’ bills could be printed.
So from Springville to Amherst and then Lackawanna,
we’ll pay more for less stuff, sort of anti-nirvana.

When green and red budgets were part of existence,
we complained and cajoled, and put up some resistance.
the problems keep coming, they should all feel shame.
For now everything new can seem old again.

(Originally published December 27, 2008).

Kill All the Whales

28 Sep

Let me tell you a little fable that just happens to be true.*

The world was a very dark place in 1850. Dim tallow candles with reed wicks were common, lamps were inefficient, and widespread electricity was several decades off. Man had known how to extract kerosene from coal for thousands of years, but a safe and reliable method for burning it indoors was not yet invented. Instead, the world relied on whale oil to impart some small light on the dark nights.

Whale oil stunk, was hard to obtain, and was expensive. But a large segment of the world economy was based upon its production, and its use endured as German inventors tinkered with kerosene lamps. Right, bowhead, and sperm whales were chased to all ends of the earth, harvested and slaughtered to extract the gooey incendiary fluid from their heads. In the end, it was not the superior illuminative properties of kerosene that won the day, convincing the world to switch to a preferable product. Rather, necessity again proved the mother of invention; kerosene lamps only took off once demand for whale oil far outstripped the supply, driving the price up. Kerosene needed to be cheaper than whale oil to force a global change. In other words, no one would switch until we had killed all the whales.

Fast forward to today, as history provides a less than hopeful prediction of our fossil fuel future. It is increasingly obvious that there is enough oil, natural gas, shale and tar sand on this planet to destroy it. We will never “run out” of oil – we find more dead dinosaurs too quickly, and our global reserves only increase year to year, even as demand surges. We can’t kill all the whales. If we burn every drop of oil, the climate change effects would be calamitous.

Can we break the locust-tendency of our human inclinations? Can we break the basic economic cycle that only forces a change to solar, wind, hyrdo, tidal and (yes, probably) nuke power once gasoline is too expensive? Do we need to use a gimmick to fake ourselves into making the switch, by taxing fossil fuels to force the change, like a dieter removing all tempting food from the house? Or can we collectively make a smart, healthy decision for our planet, and choose to swap while it still costs more? History says we haven’t yet. Breaking the streak is our challenge.

* I totally stole this anecdote, though not the later conclusions, from Bill Bryson’s excellent “At Home: A Short History of Private Life.” You should read it – it’s really good.

Rewind: Good News for Buffalo (2004)

28 Sep

This is actually very good news for Buffalo. In my opinion, it’s tantamount to placing the cornerstone on the new Peace Bridge.

WASHINGTON – The United States and Canada on Friday announced a pilot project at the Peace Bridge that will shift U.S. Customs and Immigration officers to Fort Erie, Ont., where they will inspect all U.S.-bound cars and trucks.This means that the primary and secondary inspections of vehicles entering the country being done on Buffalo’s West Side will – at a date to be determined – be carried out at the big preclearance yard across the Niagara River in Canada.

Ideally, when the program is implemented, U.S.-bound cars and trucks will be able to roll across the bridge into Buffalo without stopping for tolls or inspections and proceed directly to the Niagara Thruway or into the city.

Besides making Buffalo a more convenient and economical entry point for commerce and tourism, the move will also sharply reduce pollution and noise from idling vehicles.

(Originally published on December 18, 2004).

Sign the Petition: Let the Food Trucks Roam Buffalo

26 Sep

I realize that the regulation of food trucks is not the most pressing matter facing the world, the state, the city, our society, etc. I am fully cognizant of the fact that this is, on the surface, a first world problem.

However, this is also an issue about freedom to do business in a business-unfriendly place. This is an issue about defeating a strict adherence to oldthink with grassroots support for something new, good, and innovative. The very fact that the food trucks in Buffalo have had to unite for a lobbying effort to counteract an effort to run them out of business by existing quick-serve brick & mortar restaurants underscores the difficulty they face in just being allowed to operate in a reasonable way, and in changing presumptions and mindsets.

This isn’t about poaching customers or throwing a middle finger up at existing restaurants.  This is about setting up reasonable, rational regulations to protect the food trucks’ right to do business, and also to protect the concerns of existing brick & mortar restaurants, many of whom are quite supportive of the food truck movement.

Good food and consumer choice wins here. Please sign the petition, linked-to below, which has been endorsed and approved by the Buffalo coalition of food trucks. This will be sent to each Common Council member, as well as the Executive Director of Buffalo Place. Be heard.

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He’s Trying! #notreally

25 Sep

Kudos to the Buffalo News’ Mark Sommer for exposing a convicted tax cheat and apparent charlatan for his disorganized joke of a “film festival”.

If I had a nickel for every time the disorganizer of some half-baked event or project denounced someone at WNYMedia in this way, I’d be a millionaire:

[exposing me for what I am] is not helping the area by doing this,” he said, warning negative press on him or the festival “would harm the region.”

No, promoting falsehoods and taking money you’re not entitled to from naive people is a bigger harm to the region. A more pervasive problem are the promoters of a relentless and uncritical positivity, which unwittingly helps to poison this region.

“I certainly wouldn’t want to disparage anyone who is making an effort to do something good for Western New York,” said Lockport Common Council President Richelle J. Pasceri.

No, he’s apparently lying to people and stealing from them. You should want to disparage him; that sort of conduct deserves disparagement.

Blind or uncritical positivity is the fuel of mediocrity and “good enough” stasis. In cases like this, it leads to apparent fraud and larceny.

Escape the Urban: Royalton Ravine

25 Sep

What do we do with Royalton Ravine?

Don’t let any writer tell you they don’t have an agenda. Stringing words together isn’t so lucrative or stress free that one takes up the profession for purely superficial reasons. Storytellers, bloggers, traditional journalists and sports beat writers all have their motivations, from love of the game to a drive to shine light on political corruption. If you write restaurant reviews and don’t love food, your readers will notice and you don’t last long.

The outdoor writer’s agendas are similarly layered: get people out into nature, build a constituency for environmental protection, help promote related businesses, brag about your own exploits, expose the curious to something you love. I get great satisfaction from readers telling me they tried a trail, a paddle, a spot I recommended, and were changed for it. What better feedback could a writer receive in a craft that often involves many lonely hours in front of a computer at home.

Such motivations, unconscious as they might be, lead to some subtle topical choices. Should I overlook a flaw in this park so people will still want to visit? Do I gloss it over? Leave it unmentioned, like it doesn’t exist? Can I be honest and still accomplish my agenda, left unspoken and unstated as it often is? The reader must trust the writer – blow sunshine and your integrity, reputation and livelihood are simultaneously lost. At the same time, I had a local food writer tell me once that the key to writing a good review is picking the right restaurant in the first place. There are four hundred red sauce houses in Western New York; if you don’t want to write a negative article, don’t go to them.

Which brings us back to Royalton Ravine. On a recent weekend I took my family on a hike in this out-of-the-way park located east of Lockport. I enjoy hiking, and I need to collect data for articles, and the two purposes usually nicely coincide. So let me be clear: when I pull into the parking lot and unload my sons for our mini-adventure, I am predisposed to positivity. I’m not looking for trouble. I want to like the trail.  But I did not, and now I don’t know what to do.

Can a trek be virtually unknown and still be over-hyped? While certainly popular among the local residents of the town of Royalton, for the rest of us this Niagara County Park is a bit off the beaten path and not prominent on most radar. It appears in only two lesser known guidebooks (Rich and Sue Freedman’s local waterfall guide and Randi Minetor’s Falcon guide) which is how I found it on Trails.com. The route descriptions talked up a cable stayed bridge over the creek and old settlement ruins, good hooks to lure the curious. Western New York is gorge country – Niagara, Letchworth, and Zoar Valley being only the most prominent, as every little creek and waterway eventually cuts a path in our receptive geology – and I was hoping this spot would be a nice hidden gem to add.

Instead, I found real potential marred by abuse and neglect. The path itself is a mud pit, made the worse by ruts and gashes, the product of obviously frequent churning of wheeled vehicles, be they town maintenance trucks or unauthorized ATVs. Littering the path is every sort of refuse, from alcohol and energy drink cans to discarded panties. Roughly a third of the trees along the trail bear the permanent graffiti of knife carvings. One online guide I found later recommended calling ahead to ensure the cable bridge is in place, as it is often the target of vandalism and destruction. Never mind that the bridge itself is three feet above the creek and perfectly ordinary, not the marvel described in an over-excited guidebook.

Most frustrating was the state of the old homestead crumbling near the top of the obscured falls. A pile of forgotten stones, tagged by spray paint and now home to a fire pit and assorted beer cans, this modest ruin has a place in history. If a number of local guides are to be believed, is the birthplace and early childhood home of Belva Ann Lockwood, leader of the women’s suffrage movement. She was the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court, and the first woman to run for President, doing so in 1884 and 1888. One would not know that from looking; the disrepair of this site indicates worthlessness, and there is no sign or marker to convince you otherwise.

Maybe I should go back in the spring, where less view-blocking foliage and more water would great a dramatic enough falls to make me forget the other issues. Maybe I should be happy there is a county park “protecting” the watershed at all. Maybe I should call Royalton Ravine a red sauce restaurant, ignore it and move on.

But we don’t have four hundred parks in WNY, and red sauce houses don’t get managed with public tax dollars. At a minimum the trail should be maintained, the graffiti eliminated, the trash picked up, and the area patrolled (if necessary) to keep it from coming back. If the homestead ruins are what local guides say, they should be cleaned, stabilized, marked, and (in a perfect world) restored.

There is potential at Royalton Ravine, not for a national park-like masterpiece, but for a quality combination of natural and social history. An ice age remnant gorge, a shale bottom creek, stands of old timber, a sixty foot waterfall, and intertwined a story of our region’s first settlers and political pioneers. It is a potential currently masked and neglected. What do we do about it?

Buffalo Food Trucks: Call To Action

23 Sep

I know, I know.

The urge to rip Carl Paladino a new, equine-sized rectum over his poorly thought-out opposition to food trucks is relentlessly strong.

And that post might come, but it’s not this one.

Because as it stands right now, the Buffalo food trucks are unable to set up anywhere in Buffalo – except on private property – and in the case of Buffalo Place (which is sort of private, but not really), even that’s in jeopardy.

Carl’s noise applies only to Buffalo Place’s unfortunately named “business improvement district”. Here’s who populates the board of that entity. You have two governing bodies to lobby – the city and Buffalo Place, and Paladino is being particularly vocal in opposition to the food trucks, using all of the lies and falsities that Just Pizza and Jim’s Steakout spouted back in August.

The only truck that ever set up anywhere near the Ellicott Square Building was the Whole Hog Truck, which parked 370 feet from the Ellicott Square’s main entrance on Washington Street. It serves BBQ pork sandwiches, which neither Charlie the Butcher nor Just Pizza serve.

This post is not about Buffalo Place, but you should take the list of board members and start writing to them or calling them now.

This is instead about the entire rest of the city, which the Common Council will be discussing on September 29th. This post is about taking a problem and solving it. So, I’m giving you some homework. We don’t want Thursday’s meeting to turn into another restaurant vs. truck shouting match. I think we need the trucks and their supporters to continue to be reasonable, collaborative, and worry less about the restaurant/Paladino drama.

So, I don’t care if you reply in comments or shoot me an email to alan[at]wnymedia.net, but here’s the assignment:

Create your ideal food truck regulations; a one-page outline of

what you’d like the rules to be, or what you think is fair.

That’s it.

250 feet from an operating restaurant kitchen? 500 feet? 2 hour maximum time in any city-street location? More? Less? What else?

Here’s the proposed legislation as it stands now:

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This being Buffalo, an ad hoc, undisclosed group of “concerned” businesses has united to hire a lawyer and actively oppose the food trucks, running them out of business completely. They submitted documents to the Common Council for their consideration. Food truck proponents must – and should – do the same.

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There is a public hearing that’s taking place on Thursday September 29th at 10:00 AM in room 1417 of City Hall. It will be chaired by Common Councilmember Joe Golombek, and the public is invited to attend. If you’re a city resident, you should contact your city council representative and urge him or her to attend. The object of this hearing isn’t to discuss what a jerk Carl Paladino is, but instead to craft reasonable, rational, and fair regulations that will allow the food trucks to operate more freely in the city (but outside the downtown core), and also protect existing brick & mortar restaurants.

The current imbroglio over the food trucks is Exhibit A of how new ideas and change are oftentimes aborted. It might not be the most important issue in the world, but how it’s handled lays the framework and pattern for how all novel ideas and issues are handled; it’s new and different! Kill it with fire and holy water!

Instead of getting distracted by fights with reactionaries who have proven themselves continually to be part of the problem, we should instead solve the underlying problem: reasonable regulations that protect both the food trucks and their opponent/critics.

Other cities have dealt with this issue. They reached a fair and reasonable compromise. There’s no reason why Buffalo shouldn’t be able to do the same. Let’s make it happen.

For a change.