Balancing the ‘Belongers’

5 Oct

I’m ashamed to admit that I was That Guy in college, at least when it came to Buffalo. You know the perpetual game of one-upmanship: if you’ve visited Mexico, That Guy has been to South America. If you’ve got one nice car, That Guy has two. If you won a hundred bucks a blackjack, he’s won a thousand. No matter what it is, That Guy doubles down one better.

My penchant had a twist. Tell me if you’ve heard this before: disgruntled resident leaves Buffalo because he’s sick of it, but then once in a new city tells anyone who will listen how great Buffalo is.

“Yes, we get it,” my exasperated college roommate would often say. “Everything is better in Buffalo.”

In my defense, I kept my Buffalo bragging to a couple reoccurring themes: chicken wings, snow removal, fast food tacos and italian sausage. When my roommate finally came home with me to visit, he agreed on the first two, but never took to Mighty Taco. His loss. 

I thought such boasting comparisons were a phenomenon reserved for the expat community until I came home and saw a similar ritual play out in hundreds of internal Western New York battles, both big and small: Canalside, city vs suburbs, school districts, regionalism, the Route 5 rebuild and the Buffalo: For Real video. To grossly over-simplify and put aside the specifics, many of our internal disputes boil down to a conflict between pride and critique. The lovers vs the haters. The home grown Buffalovers vs the repats or fresh blood. The status quo vs. change agents.

Everyone lives somewhere; there is no shame in taking pride in the place you call home and trying to live well there. But we all know the type that love our everything simply because its ours. My overdeveloped need to organize and label has struggled with an accurate categorization here. Eventually, to borrow a turn of phrase, I have settled on the “Love Buffalo First Crowd.” They love Spot because it’s our coffee shop. They love Allentown because it’s our art district. Our zoo because it’s our zoo. Our art museums because they are our museums. Our book stores and tapas houses and farmer’s markets and dive bars and waterways and architecture and 5k runs and harbor simply because they are ours. In some ways I am certainly guilty as charged – force me sometime to give a straight rational answer on why I am a Sabres fan.

But I have my limits. I have been to Pike Place Market in Seattle and Saturday Market in Portland and have a hard time not comparing every outdoor market I attend to those. I can think of thirty sea food joints on the Gulf, Atlantic and Pacific coasts that blow the socks off anything I can get here. I know what a public art festival and competition should like. To the Love Buffalo First Crowd, this might make me a hater. I say its a matter of objectivity and priority. I love bookstores more than I love Buffalo, or Buffalo’s bookstores. I love kayaking more than I love Western New York’s whitewater.

Enter finally the title character of this article. In last Sunday’s Buffalo News, the lead opinion article was from Dr. Paul Tesluk, professor of organizational behavior at UB. He recommends (borrowing the headline) we tap WNY’s “Belongers” to achieve job growth in our region. Tesluk takes the name “Belongers” from a charming sign at the immigration desk on the British Virgin Islands, which divides those standing in the cue into “Belongers” and “Non-Belongers,” instead of residents, or citizens, or some other moniker. He goes on to extol the virtues of organizations that foster a great sense of Belonging, such as Southwest Airlines and Wegmans, as they encourage entrepreneurialism and ownership, two keys for eventual growth (of profit and jobs both). While laying out few specifics, he says Buffalo should tap our Belongers, and use the strength of our sense of community as a competitive advantage, the same way Southwest Airlines would.

I could not disagree more.

I think our Belongers, our Love Buffalo First Crowd, have taken civic pride about as far up the economic development ladder as it can go. It has sparked a hundred Buffalove t-shirt shops, a movement to embrace food trucks, and multiple festivals celebrating chicken wings and snow. It has filled Ralph Wilson’s pockets over the years, and made Terry Pegula’s investment a sure financial success, if nothing else. But while it has generated interest in renovating dilapidated buildings, it has not provided the capital to do so. Wishes for new loft housing now exceed cash for such projects. Desire for good jobs to attract expats now exceed available opportunities. Ironically, it is not at all clear Dr. Tesluk actually lives here himself. If he loves the region but has to telecommute to multiple jobs, he wouldn’t be the first.

If capital and opportunity are to equal our pride, then I don’t want to tap into our Belongers. I want no Love Buffalo First impulses. I don’t want knee-jerk defensiveness for any regional promotional project, especially the shady ones. I don’t want to take another solitary step that insulates us from the world economy, no matter how well intentioned the cozy blanket of Belonging may be. I want hard-nosed, clear-eyed entrepreneurs who love opportunity more than they love Buffalo. I want to leverage our regional competitive advantages that are objectively better on a global scale. I don’t want to hear that some industry, some business, some invention is great because it’s in Buffalo, or the best we have to offer. If the Global Vascular Institute, once completed on the medical campus, is only the best place to get a heart transplant in Buffalo, and not the best place between New York City and Cleveland, then we have collectively failed.

While we sit around loving ourselves first the world is literally passing us by, and without stabilization and then growth, the things we like best about Buffalo won’t be around for our children to see.

7 Responses to “Balancing the ‘Belongers’”

  1. Chris Smith at 3:45 pm #

    Civic Pride and satisfaction with incremental progress as a substitute for accomplishments and growth, a Buffalo manifesto by Chris Smith

    Soon appearing only on local bookstore shelves.

  2. Brian Castner at 5:03 pm #

    700 pages, singlespaced on a typewriter, furiously knocked out in your cabin in the hidden glen known as “Orchard Park”?

  3. Russ at 6:35 pm #

    Bravo – wonderful piece that sums up a lot of what I’ve never been able to articulate personally.

  4. Starbuck at 10:50 pm #

    Very well put. I had a moment of fun guessing to what your “especially the shady ones” would link. Many candidates for that!

    The only part I disagree with is this, which sounds going too far the other way:

    If the Global Vascular Institute … is only the best place to get a heart transplant in Buffalo, and not the best place between New York City and Cleveland, then we have collectively failed.

    There’s a few million of population from say Erie to here to Rochester/Syracuse/Albany – not to mention Ontario medical tourists. So even if heart care ends up not quite as world class as something else in NYC or Cleveland, many people’s health could benefit from the GVI even if it’s only very good. And even if it’s a big failure, I don’t see why blame should be collective. I for one don’t expect to worsen it any.

    By the way, did you think of putting a comment under Prof. Tesluck’s piece linking to this so more people see it and find your blog? As of now you can write its first and only comment. Somehow neither Lydia or Bobbycat happened to click on it, apparently.

  5. Ethan Cox at 11:56 am #

    “Bro” seems to have gone to my alma mater!

  6. homebrewer at 8:30 pm #

    Brian said: “But while it has generated interest in renovating dilapidated buildings, it has not provided the capital to do so. Wishes for new loft housing now exceed cash for such projects.”

    Bad example. There are several examples of “dilapidated” building renovations for lofts, office space, and other uses. Plenty of capital and plenty of customers in Buffalo for this type of thing.

  7. Brian Castner at 9:55 am #

    @ Starbuck: I think to justify the many hundreds of millions of dollars going into the GVI, it does need to beat Strong in Rochester, or whatever systems are in Erie, Syracuse, and Albany. We are theoretically a larger metro with more resources than any of those spots – why shouldn’t it be top dog? Challenge the Cleveland Clinic and Pittsburgh’s systems? And I call the blame collective because it was a project endorsed by our politicians, funded by our tax dollars, and reliant on some amount of collective support to make happen. Private investors (cimminelli, for example) are investing in the areas around it, and that helps the project attract the talent required. So, no, I don’t know how I would personally have made a difference in making the GVI better, but I think we bear a collective community blame it if doesn’t live up the expectations. BTW, for the record, I have no reason to believe it won’t – that whole campus is the best thing in Buffalo that doesn’t get enough press.

    And on the Buff News, I’m not actually registered with their system, so I never thought of the promotion there. I’m amazed bobbycat hasn’t found it yet.

    @ Homebrewer – Actually, its a great example. Renovated lofts are a hot commodity. Most projects thus far have been successful and are generally full. The Corn Exchange is about to open with 28 new units, and its 90% filled already. Such numbers indicate a strong demand, and the Love Buffalo First Crowd has done a good job promoting downtown living and making it exciting. However, there is not plenty of capital for such projects. AM&A’s, the Jersey Livery, the old Spaghetti Warehouse, and two dozen other loft renovation projects sit in limbo because there is not enough money to go around. The developers are waiting for a mix of tax credits and low interest loans to make them feasible. If Rocco had $40M sitting around, he could do AM&A’s tomorrow. Buffalo could use another $150M in downtown rehab capital to catch up with demand, but its simply not there, and loving Buffalo doesn’t create it.

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