Archive | May, 2012

The Niagara Falls Holiday Market: Great Success?

23 May

Remember the Niagara Falls Holiday Market? The one I wrote disappointedly about in late November, and took a lot of flak about it from people who equate “honest criticism” with “negative naysaying”? 

Despite an alleged budget of $900,000 (I challenge anyone to figure out where that money went); $450,000 of which came from the taxpayers of the City of Niagara Falls and the State of New York, the market ended $31,000 in the red.

The Niagara Gazette’s article doesn’t delve deep enough, and merely contains he said/he said quotes from Mayor Dyster and Councilmember Fruscione, who said, “[a]nybody we do business with in the future will pay us to do business, we won’t be paying them.” It states that the organizer was not to profit from organizing the event, but omits a lot of facts that are covered in the weekly Niagara Falls Reporter’s stories (number 1, number 2number 3, an editorial, and number 4). For instance: 

– There was a line-item of $114,000 for “salaries”, and the organizer won’t disclose to the city who received it. 

– It cost $40,000 to stage an Aaron Neville concert that brought in a mere $9,000. 

– The city council wants the market and its organizers to justify and account for its supposed costs of almost $800,000. 

– Tony Walker was a prominently billed vendor, scheduled to take 10 huts. It never showed, but the organizer himself apparently opened and operated up to seven vending booths himself. 

– The organizers used photos of other Christmas markets, ice rinks, and Christmas trees in order to promote the one at the Niagara Falls market – all of them were misleading at best

– Numerous people claim to have been stiffed by the market organizers. (One of the vendors retained my professional services in early 2012, and was ultimately paid – others were not so lucky). 

– The market claims that the ice rink cost $147,000, but the rink operator says the contract was for $99,000

– Only about 370 people actually skated on the $100,000 rink, which saw gross receipts of $6,463. 

– A BPO concert grossed about $7,500, but cost over $17,000 to stage. 

– Elizabeth von Trapp grossed about $2,800, but cost about $3,500 to stage. 

– The Canadian Tenors grossed about $9,300, but cost over $40,000. 

– Organizers promised the city and state that over 80 vendors would participate; only 35 showed up. 

– Promises were made that the event would generate $30,000 in sales tax for the city, but there’s scant evidence that all vendors were diligent about collecting sales tax, or of any bump in revenue. Likewise, there were promises of 300 part-time jobs, over $30,000 in parking revenue, and $3,000 in bed tax revenue – no proof exists that any of those promises were met. 

– With respect to the Idaho developer, Mark Rivers, who organized the market, he reportedly operated 7 booths himself, and questions are being raised whether his staffing or inventory costs were subsidized by taxpayers. 

According to the Reporter, the market took in about $90,000 and spent about $767,000, with a net loss of over $670,000. 

Based on the evidence, it would appear as if the market wasn’t exactly a rousing success. While it did bring people to an otherwise empty part of town during the cold winter months, it was a fiscal disaster and a complete amateur hour. People who went there may have had a good time, but to equate what happened on Falls Street with a traditional European-style Christmas market is foolish. 

None of this would matter, of course, if it was just a budding entrepreneur who took a bath on a good idea that was poorly implemented. However, this particular entrepreneur used $450,000 from taxpayers in a very poor city and a cash-strapped state. That it was so vastly different in execution from what was promised in the inducement smacks of mismanagement at best, fraud at worst. 

There’s no reason, however, why Niagara Falls shouldn’t try again in 2012. After all, it’s got $100,000 in sheds to use. But this is an event that can be put on either by USA Niagara or, better still, by the Niagara Falls business community or a non-profit organization. There’s no reason it should cost $800,000, and it could be made much more festive than what was there last year. 

The Morning Grumpy – 5/23/12

23 May

All the news, views, and filtered excellence that’s fit to consume during your morning grumpy.

1. This is a cool local Kickstarter project that was brought to my attention by local photographer and technologist, Clark Dever.

The Woodworker’s Clubhouse, as the name implies it is an open access community woodshop that members can use the fully equipped woodshop for their woodworking projects.  It is a place where people with a common interest in woodworking can meet, socialize and/or collaborate on their projects…a place to share resources and knowledge in a social/educational venue.  It provides a place where they can use expensive tools and equipment they would not otherwise have access to.

Buffalo needs more of these makerspaces as we slowly rebuild our culture of innovation, entrepreneurship, and appreciation for crafts and trades. I kicked in a few bucks and I think you should as well.

2. Seven years ago at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace gave what is (in my estimation) the greatest commencement speech ever given. In 2009, after his suicide in the manner referenced below, the speech was adapted into a short book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.

It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

An incredible speech from one of America’s greatest and most misunderstood thinkers. If you’re averse to lengthy reading, you can listen to this speech here and here.

3. Is Facebook ruining marriage? Survey says…YES!

More than a third of divorce filings last year contained the word Facebook, according to a U.K. survey by Divorce Online, a  legal services firm. And over 80% of U.S. divorce attorneys say they’ve seen a rise in the number of cases using social networking, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

It’s not simply due to affairs and re-connections with old flames. In other studies, the social networking tool has proven to create profound feelings of loneliness and envy. So, you might want to rethink how often you check that news feed.

4. 2012 is the last best chance for the Republicans to assert control over the government. Expect the most radical, partisan, and heated campaign in history. Why? Because “their voters are white, aging, and dying off

Over the next several generations, the wave of minority voters — who, according to U.S. Census figures released this week, now represent more than half of the nation’s population born in the past year — will become more of a power base in places like Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. That hold will extend across the Southwest all the way to California, experts say.

The coming political revolution could result in a massive changing of the guard on nearly every level of government, potential cultural clashes, and the type of political alliances that are now considered rare.

Republicans have staked their hopes for 2012 on motivating their shrinking base of white, religious, and angry voters to turn out in record numbers against the Kenyan socialist avatar they’ve constructed to represent Barack Obama. The rhetoric necessary to generate that turnout will make the acidic and horrifying tone of the 2008 general election seem like a dance around the maypole.

Luckily for Democrats, the GOP establishment picked the one candidate who inspired the least amount of fervent support amongst the base. No one is excited to vote for Mitt Romney, except for people in magic underwear and rich white men who get semi-erections while reading about massive union layoffs.

5. A reporter was writing a story about the environmental dangers of tar sand oil mining. He wanted to get into the facility to take pictures, but the oil company wouldn’t let him in. So, he rented a plane and took photos from overhead.

When I see pictures like this, I’m reminded that we can be described as parasitoids on this planet. That we will go to these lengths to mine for fossil fuels rather than invest in alternative and renewable means of energy is simply beyond my comprehension.

Fact Of The Day: The land for Arlington National Cemetery was seized from the family of Confederate General Robert E Lee so that the Union dead could be laid at his doorstep.

Quote Of The Day:  “Maybe this world is another planet’s hell.” ― Aldous Huxley

Laugh Of The Day: “Animal Abuse” – Patrice O’Neal

Video Of The Day: How a smartphone knows up from down.

Song Of The Day: “Rock Me On The Water” – Jackson Browne

Follow me on Twitter for the “incremental grumpy” @ChrisSmithAV

Email me links, tips, story ideas: chris@artvoice.com

Proaction vs. Reaction (UPDATED)

22 May

That’s WGRZ’s report on last night’s protest of the demolition of the Bethlehem Steel administration building adjacent to a crushed stone and cement facility. It’s a shame to see a pretty building go, but as I wrote yesterday, I certainly think this ranks rather low on the priority scale for not just Lackawanna, but western New York at large. 

After so many decades of preservationist battles led by professional activists funded by Buffalo’s foundations – after so many decades of reactive grassroots planning-by-litigation, is anyone amazed that even lowly White Plains, with a population of less than 100,000, has a more modern, better-constructed, better-designed, and more walkable city core than Buffalo?  

Please don’t mistake my sentiment – I think it’s great that we have a treasure trove of gorgeous, architecturally significant buildings to show off here in town. I thank the people who worked/work to save and improve them.

But where does that end? We also have a community that reacts to the proposed demolition of, say, Trico Plant 1 by defaulting to “keep it”. When “architectural significance” isn’t going to fly, they rely instead on appeals to emotion about its personal significance, or the significance of what once took place within that building. Are we going to erect a windshield-wiper museum in Trico? Is it the first, or the best, or the prettiest example of that sort of factory? Is Trico 1 to be treated like it’s equivalent to the Darwin Martin House? 

And preservation shouldn’t be quite so reactive. 

After all, what palpable, positive results do we have to show for our civic fascination with planning-by-litigation, and our mysteriously funded preservation reactivist efforts? I know that the city is still haunted by the demolition of, e.g., the Erie County Savings Bank to make way for the execrable Main Place Tower and the empty, pitiful “mall” attached to it, and that the Larkin Administration Building was demolished, leaving only yet another surface parking lot. But after all these years, you’d think that there’d be a lobbying effort to codify actual rules and regulations. But whereas old Buffalo erred on the side of demolition, perhaps now we err too often on the side of preservation – even of buildings whose historical, cultural, or architectural significance is specious, at best. 

Look – I don’t want pretty buildings demolished any more than anyone else does. And I’m not “in favor” of demolishing the Bethlehem Steel building at issue here. By the same token, I think you should only interfere reactively to a landowner’s use of his privately owned property where there’s a compelling public reason to do so. Dismantle this Bethlehem Steel building and put it someplace else. They did it with the 1831 London Bridge. 

Where’s the push for a land-value tax? Where’s the push to create a binding, uniform set of rules and regulations for handling these things. All that money and influence that the preservationist community enjoys, and we don’t yet have a “do not touch” list of historically, architecturally, or culturally significant buildings for Erie County? We’re just going to back-handedly react to planned demolitions by equating an abandoned building in a concrete factory to Shea’s? 

Sometimes, I think Buffalo’s preservationist community secretly wants these sorts of battles. They don’t really want the problem to be solved through prospective action; with legislation and a binding, predictable set of rules. Tim Tielman’s name is synonymous with architectural preservation in Buffalo, and he wields a lot of influence and has many wealthy and powerful supporters. He’s uniquely positioned to parlay his influence into legislative action. 

But if the problem is solved, what would they do then? 

UPDATE: I’ve been debating regular commenter and BRO writer David Steele in a post at Rustwire, and we’ve been going back and forth, with his ultimate position being that an elimination or reversal of suburban sprawl in WNY would solve problems like this Lackawanna Administration Building. Here’s what I wrote him in reply: 

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The Crossroads of Presidential Politics

22 May

 

HT Marquil at EmpireWire.com

Places Generally Matter

21 May

The city of Lackawanna is scheduled to demolish the Bethlehem Steel Administration Building, which is an objectively beautiful but neglected building. It wasn’t until the last few weeks that this structure became an important “must-save” for the Buffalo preservationist community, but it is now the subject of overnight vigils and earnest signage urging re-use of the property, and that “this place matters”. 

Would it be nice if the building could be saved and re-used? Absolutely.  It would be absolutely fantastic if there was enough wealth in the area and interest in that site to do something useful, valuable, and forward-thinking with it. But must we? Is this a “must-save”? Why? By what standard? It’s not even particularly persuasive that, e.g., FixBuffalo blogger David Torke has established that the building isn’t as structurally dangerous as the demolition contractor avers

Lackawanna has no preservationist group or community, mostly because it’s the type of city that doesn’t have a lot of time for things that don’t involve work. It’s a gritty, working-class place; not a place with a big architecture enthusiast community. That’s why most – if not all – of the protesters against the demolition of the Bethlehem Steel building come from Buffalo. It would be nice if we could save the building, but it’s not a civic priority. Not a “must do”. 

How would we know if it was a must-do, anyway? After so many years of these ad hoc battles every time an architecturally pretty building becomes endangered, we still don’t have an objective set of established rules, lists, regulations, and laws to govern what does and doesn’t get torn down, and the process to do so. After all these years, it still boils down to, “holy crap, [municipal or private entity] is going to demolish [building no one really thought much about until it became endangered]! Let’s react!”

And react they did. Twitter, Facebook, even Instagram all have emotional entreaties to save that building. Torke has written a series of blog posts, including his images of exploring the structure

One of the most common pleas to emotion regarding the Bethlehem Steel building and, earlier, the Trico Plant 1 is that “this place matters”. Well, of course. Everyplace matters. Of all the arguments against demolishing an old, pretty building, is the fact that it “matters” to people the most persuasive and insightful argument?

During the Trico debates, one person went so far as to say the building should be preserved because her parents met while working there. Under that standard, we’d effectively ban demolition of every building, everywhere. Why, I’ll bet someone’s parents met while working at the Donovan Building, but I don’t see anyone clamoring for preserving its facade. I’m sure Buffalo City Court – the ugliest building in Christendom – matters to someone, but if the state decided it needed to be replaced by something less fortress-like, I’d hold a parade. 

So, perhaps we should dispense with the emotion-driven “this place matters” nonsense. Of course “this” place matters, because all places “matter”. 

But what does all of this say about our civic priorities? Lackawanna is a city that was decimated by Bethlehem Steel’s closure. That entire waterfront is a monument, alright – a monument to a century of unregulated environmental destruction of what was once a gorgeous coastline. Just as Trico is a monument to an industrial exodus from WNY to places with palm trees, Bethlehem Steel is a headstone for a uniquely Buffalonian past – ecological crisis to serve a master hundreds of miles away. 

I flew over the site on Friday. Here are two images as I approached the building we’re talking about: 

Approach from the west

Site is indicated

Notice anything there? How about the acres and acres of brownfield that surrounds the site and would likely cost millions – if not tens of millions – to clean up and convert into something that didn’t just randomly poison people. Where’s the political or civic will to actually transform this lakefront into something remotely usable by people? It’s so contaminated that its highest and best use is as land for buildings supplies and really big – often stationary – windmills. Not apartments, or offices, or shops or parkland – it’s so dangerous that people aren’t even generally allowed there.  

A drive down Route 5 from about Gallagher Beach, south to Lackawanna is a tour of despair, decay, and rottenness. What are we going to do as a society – as a community – to right a massive and longstanding wrong? The land where this building is located is owned by Gateway Trade – an industrial park that houses a crushed stone company

We could reclaim that land for general use and public enjoyment, but we’re focused on one pretty building. 

I submit that preserving the pretty building is a nice sentiment, but not a civic priority. Appeals to emotion do not justification make. Cleaning up the lakefront and the contaminated land that once was home to the steel industry, so that it’s fit for human habitation? That’s the real outrage – that’s the real “must do.” And it doesn’t get any less expensive the longer we sit and wait. 

Perhaps we could set up a committee and hold a series of public hearings. 

So You Want to do Business in New York

18 May
Inflatable Rat

Inflatable Rat was unavailable for comment

Governor Cuomo is wildly popular, and he’s getting loads of credit for helping to fix the state’s fiscal crisis, and also for implementing and advocating for reforms of the way in which the state does its business. Perhaps, however, the change he’s brought has been too tentative and not wide-reaching enough.  

Take, for instance, the case of Howard Nielsen, the owner of Sticky Lips BBQ in Rochester. I first became aware of his restaurant when I saw the new one being constructed along Jefferson Road, and I had a very nice lunch there recently. He’s written an exasperated open letter right on the front page of his restaurant’s website, called “So You Want to do Business in New York“.  

The land on which the restaurant sits is owned by the Genesee Valley Regional Market Authority and leased to Sticky Lips, which owns the building. It’s a small property – a former Roadhouse restaurant – and Sticky Lips completed its renovations through a private non-union contractor. It’s not a “public work”, he’s not required under any regulation or statute to retain the services of union labor, and he is just a guy who owns a restaurant who built it out and paid a bunch of people a lot of money to renovate and build it out. He didn’t use any public money to do so. 

But the shakedown began when, halfway through the project, a guy from the carpenter’s union showed up. It was a small job, and he was told, “no thanks”.  Two days later, there was an OSHA guy camped out across the street with “a telephoto lens”. A few weeks later, a guy from the electrical union showed up. They were also told, “no thanks.” Two days later, an inspector from the state Department of Labor was on site, demanding to see the contracts to determine whether prevailing wages were being paid. 

I’m generally pro-union, and I respect the notion of collective bargaining to ensure that workers who choose to unionize are treated fairly. But that should apply to big business, or public works. Ultimately – it’s the workers’ choice whether to work for a union shop or not, and small businesses renovating a non-chain restaurant should, frankly, be left alone, much less harassed. And why is it that state and federal inspectors are seemingly acting in concert – one could even say on behalf of – the union? 

Now? Sticky Lips’ contractors were all subpoenaed for a May 16th hearing at the Labor Department for an investigation of whether laws were broken. Nielsen continues, 

Bob Bibbins pressured me to go online to register this project with the labor department, which would automatically commit me or my contractors to pay prevailing wages.  He said he would start the violation from the date he showed up, but wouldn’t put that deal in writing.  I did not submit to this online filing. My lawyer at Woods Oviatt Gilman gave Bibbins our stance that we own the building privately and we are only making improvements to the building and not the land which it sits on.

Furthermore,

In the meantime, Bibbins is going to push this and see that I pay these prevailing wages. He has subpoenaed the contractors, who have to show up May 16th and attend before Ralph Gleason, public work wage investigator. He has been designated by the Commissioner of Labor to conduct an investigation concerning Sticky Lips BBQ, “an entity subject to an investigation by the New York State Department of Labor concerning a public work project pursuant to the provisions of Article 8, New York State Labor Law.”

All I did was to put many construction workers to work. I bought hundreds of thousands of dollars of construction materials from local companies. At this restaurant, I have created over 120 good-paying jobs. The business will collect and pay hundreds of thousands dollars in sales, property, employment, and other taxes. Between my three restaurants, I have over 200 employees. I am contributing to the state, I am creating jobs. I am the type of businessman the state wants. I feel like I am being attacked by these two unions, who have put pressure on the N.Y.S. Labor Department to see this through.

Not only do I need to reinvest my profits to grow my business, but now I have to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees and worst case scenario – if the Labor Department wins, many more thousands for this prevailing wage issue.

Is this the type of business practice I should expect from New York State as I try to grow my business in the upcoming years?

Nielsen has appended some documents to his letter to prove his point. So, why exactly was this relatively small venture targeted?

We Are the Job Creators

17 May

A lot of what I learned as a political science major in the late 1980s is now obsolete – with a particular interest in Eastern European studies, all of my textbooks became woefully outdated between August and December 1989.  

But among my studies of why Weimar failed and analyses of Milovan Djilas’ New Class, I also recall that the American struggle for independence, the Civil War, and the European upheaval of 1848 were “bourgeois revolutions” and direct or indirect offspring of the Enlightenment.  A phrase that gets thrown about quite frequently in contemporary American politics is “class warfare”, but that’s absolute nonsense. The United States doesn’t have anywhere near the class conflict of, say, the UK. After all, we banned nobility and titles. 

The irony, of course, is that the notion of class struggle being a political struggle is an inherently Marxist concept. So, welcome to Marxism, Republicans!

These bourgeois revolutions generally replaced nobility and power-through-hereditary-entitlement with the rule of law and representative democracy. Some worked, others didn’t.  But in the United States, at least, the post-Civil-War 14th Amendment paved the way for the society we have today. But our national priorities and policies since the early 1980s have uniformly helped the very rich and harmed the middle class and working class. Unions are weaker, your purchasing power is stagnant, your earnings have stayed about the same.  Average Americans’ savings have declined, debt is up, trickle-down is a myth, and wealth has become ever-more concentrated, rather than spread around widely. 

So, as part of its “Ideas Worth Spreading”, the TED series of talks invited Seattle venture capitalist Nick Hanauer to speak on March 1 at the “TED University conference”.  Hanauer’s topic was income inequality, and he argued that it was the middle class, and not wealthy entrepreneurs who are the true “job creators”.  TED, however, won’t release video of the speech. Too political. Too controversial. So, here it is

It is astounding how significantly one idea can shape a society and its policies.  Consider this one.

If taxes on the rich go up, job creation will go down.  

This idea is an article of faith for republicans and seldom challenged by democrats and has shaped much of today’s economic landscape.

But sometimes the ideas that we know to be true are dead wrong. For thousands of years people were sure that earth was at the center of the universe.  It’s not, and an astronomer who still believed that it was, would do some lousy astronomy.  

In the same way, a policy maker who believed that the rich and businesses are “job creators” and therefore should not be taxed, would make equally bad policy.  

I have started or helped start, dozens of businesses and initially hired lots of people. But if no one could have afforded to buy what we had to sell, my businesses would all have failed and all those jobs would have evaporated.

That’s why I can say with confidence that rich people don’t create jobs, nor do businesses, large or small. What does lead to more employment is a “circle of life” like feedback loop between customers and businesses. And only consumers can set in motion this virtuous cycle of increasing demand and hiring. In this sense, an ordinary middle-class consumer is far more of a job creator than a capitalist like me. 

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Contraction Ready for Action

16 May

In the eventuality that you don’t know “your” from “you’re”, try this (language NSFW) video on for size: 

Shooting in Defense of Self-Defense?

16 May
Trayvon Martin Protest - Sanford

Photo by Flickr user WerthMedia

In the unlawful homicide of Trayvon Martin, accused killer George Zimmerman’s family are peddling his medical records from the day after Martin was shot and killed with a single bullet to the chest

Why are they putting this out? To poison the jury pool? To generate sympathy for the living shooter and make it seem as if the dead pedestrian armed with snacks was at fault? 

Zimmerman apparently had a nose fracture, black eyes, a few cuts, and two cuts on the back of his head. Martin had injuries to his knuckles. 

The difference is, of course, that the living Zimmerman’s injuries were revealed at a doctor’s appointment the day after Martin was killed. Martin’s knuckle injuries were revealed during his autopsy. 

Zimmerman is claiming that he killed Martin in self-defense. 

Yet this is a case where the known facts seem to indicate that Martin was walking home from the store when stalked and accosted by wanna-be cop Zimmerman, who was clearly upset at the prospect of a hoodie-wearing Black kid being in his neighborhood walking home. Zimmerman then disobeyed the demand of the 911 operator to not chase after Martin, and chased after Martin, accosting him

Understand that, from Martin’s point of view, he had no idea who Zimmerman was, or what he was doing. All he knew is that there was a large man who had been staring at him from an SUV, who was now chasing him down and trying to – what? Beat him? Kidnap him? Kill him? 

The only person in this situation who had the right to defend himself was Trayvon Martin – he was completely reasonable to defend himself against this unprovoked attack from an armed lunatic – by punching the lunatic in the nose, and trying to throw him off him. 

Zimmerman got his cuts and broken nose because he attacked an innocent and unarmed person. Shooting and killing Martin for getting a busted nose and cuts on his head? Totally unreasonable force from someone who admits he didn’t know whether Martin was armed. Zimmerman attacked the kid, and the kid was fighting for his life, and started beating the crap out of his attacker. Zimmerman isn’t just a dummy who should let the cops do their jobs, he’s a horrible fighter. So, when you start losing a fight you provoked and started, that gives you the right to shoot to kill? 

Nice try. 

Frack Addicts

16 May

 

Courtesy Marquil at EmpireWire.com