Tag Archives: Economic development

The Morning Grumpy – 1/6/2012

6 Jan

All the news and views fit to consume during your morning grumpy.

1. WGRZ gave some coverage to the Buffalo Cash Mob effort last night on the 11PM news. More importantly, a quality local business received some earned media coverage to raise brand awareness.

“If they have a good time than hopefully they will tell someone else,” says Scott Wisz, owner of Chow Chocolat.  “You know that’s how we like to grow our business…I think we’re more of a word-of-mouth type venture. If people came here and had a good experience than hopefully they will tell their friends. And that’s really what we’re hoping for.”

This “Cash Mob” event will take place from 4pm-6pm on Friday, January 6, 2011 at Chow Chocolat, located at 715 Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo.

When a small business makes an investment in our community, we should reward their investment with our own. That’s the entire point of this effort. Do you want more local business in Buffalo? Do you want to see more retailers opening up in the City of Buffalo? Well, here’s how you can help make it happen. Support them and support Buffalo First!

Just to make things clear for everyone, I make no money nor receive any goods or services in exchange for organizing this effort and neither does Artvoice. This is simply a way of thanking entrepreneurs for showing the courage to open or maintain a storefront in a difficult economic time.

2. The Cuomo Billion dollar pledge to Buffalo is nice, but a bit misguided.

Cuomo’s comments came a day after he unveiled a $1 billion economic-development package for Buffalo and possibly some area communities over the next five years. The money and tax breaks are to be spent on companies willing to invest $5 billion in expansion or relocation efforts.

“I told everyone today this is not a blank check. We want jobs. We want leverage, and this is for new business opportunities,” Cuomo said.

If the local council does not find businesses willing to locate, the money won’t be spent, the governor said.

While relocating businesses to Buffalo should be part of a regional economic development strategy, it shouldn’t be THE strategy. We need sustainable, headquarters-based industry in Buffalo. No more back offices, no more secondary or tertiary datacenters, no more regional offices or secondary manufacturing plants for businesses headquartered in other areas of the country. That type of development is susceptible to whims of corporations looking to trim costs and increase margins.

How about we carve out a small portion of this money to develop regional incubators or startup accelerators for technology?  Not the type of technology found in biomedical or pharmaceutical research companies which can take years upon years to produce results, but angel and venture stage funding for software and web entrepreneurs. Perhaps focus on utilizing our darkened manufacturing facilities to attract companies looking for space and funding for small, advanced manufacturing processes? If we really have a billion dollars at our disposal, let’s not just focus on sending Tom Kucharski and the folks from Buffalo Niagara Enterprise around the country with pamphlets and a wad of cash for bribes. Let’s build our own economy.

As Paul Graham once said, “If you could get the right ten thousand people to move from Silicon Valley to Buffalo, Buffalo would become Silicon Valley.” He footnotes this by saying we could probably turn Buffalo around with 500 people or less. If they were the right kind of people. Put some money on the table for people to come here and DEVELOP business rather than relocating businesses at a high cost.

Incidentally, how pissed off are the people in Rochester? Kodak is going out of business, they face significant challenges of their own and their former Mayor is the Lieutenant Governor, which you would think would give them the inside track on state funding. Including the monies handed out during the Regional Economic Development competitions late last year, the current scorecard is $1.1 Billion for Buffalo and $68 Million for Rochester.

3. A Canadian comedy troupe has seen enough of our Republican Presidential candidates and they’ve decided to throw their toques in the ring with an announcement that they are forming their own American political party.


Follow The Canada Party on Twitter.


4. Jay Rosen on the real importance of the Iowa caucuses, reaffirming media rituals.

My suggestion is that it would be more profitable to treat the Iowa Caucuses as a “ritual,” rather than an informational or news event. There may be a modicum of information emerging from the caucuses themselves; they may tell us something–a little bit–about the relative standing of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann. But caucus coverage is more profitably viewed as a campaign ritual, in which the tribe of political reporters (like Chuck Todd or Mark Halperin) and pundits (an E.J. Dionne or a David Brooks) and pollsters (like, say, Frank Luntz) and operatives (or former operatives like James Carville or Donna Brazille) claim interpretive rights over the election of 2012.

Every four years they gather in Iowa to affirm that their way of seeing is the way to see a presidential campaign. They say they are bringing you news of what happened in Iowa. But what they’re really doing is maintaining their little society of insiders across yet another election cycle. That is what rituals do. They preserve community over time

The theater of it all is almost too much to bear.

5. Corporate profits have rebounded to pre-recession levels, but unemployment is still high and corporate tax revenue has not yet rebounded to pre-recession levels.

Why? because fuck you, that’s why.

Corporate tax revenue has plummeted for several reasons, but one of the big ones is the growth of deductions, loopholes, and outright tax evasion that helps companies limit, or entirely eliminate, their income tax liability. 30 major corporations, in fact, paid no corporate income tax over the last three years, while making $160 billion in profits.

Just a weekly reminder about why the #Occupy movement began and what we should actually be pissed off about in this country.

Quote Of The Day: “If we do not maintain justice, justice will not maintain us.” – Francis Bacon

Fact Of The Day: Blue is the dominant design color found on Facebook because CEO Mark Zuckerberg suffers from Red-Green color blindness.

Song Of The Day: “Here Comes The Sun” by Nina Simone

Follow me on Twitter: @ChrisSmithAV

Email me links, tips, story ideas: chrissmithbuffalo[@]gmail.com

Matt Chandler: Don’t Legalize the #BUFTruck

2 Nov

When last we Fisked a column by Matt Chandler of Buffalo Business First, he was busy imploring all the mean people to stop being mean to kind old racist Carl Paladino. Today, he publishes an article that is supportive of the food trucks in Buffalo, but then essentially asks the Common Council to stop crafting legislation that would legalize their operation.

As it stands now, the food trucks operate essentially as outlaws. They can sell food in the city so long as no one complains. But if someone does complain, there are no rules in place to protect anybody, and the trucks get chased away by the police. Trucks are permitted to operate on private property with permission, or along Buffalo Place in the central business district with a permit.

So, Chandler is exactly correct when he writes,

The argument is that trucks can park outside and siphon business away from bricks-and-mortar restaurants. The problem with that argument is simple: Ask people how they decide where to eat lunch and they’ll usually list a combination of the following: Who has the best food? Who has the fastest service? And who is most affordable?

It doesn’t matter if you are slinging dogs out of a cart, tacos from a truck or sandwiches out of a building, those factors drive customers.

The food trucks are simply another form of business competition, and competition is good.

If traditional restaurants are threatened, it should drive them to improve their product, deliver it with more efficiency and stay competitive in their pricing. At the end of the day, the customer wins.

But then, noting that the Common Council had tabled (again) proposed regulations, he asks them to leave it there. This completely ignores the fact that it’s the food trucks who are helping drive the debate on setting rules and regulations so that they are permitted to operate in the city without fear of being chased away arbitrarily and capriciously. Regulation is not a bad word when it protects the competing rights of mobile and stationary businesses to be treated fairly.

Currently, the proposals from the trucks and the brick & mortars are largely similar. Some differences exist – for instance, the trucks want a 200′ radius from the front doors of open kitchens, while the restaurants want the radius to emanate from the walls of any such restaurant, not just the front door. The restaurants want the city to set up special vending districts in city lots, and the trucks oppose this. The restaurants want “tax parity”, which is somewhat ridiculous. This is why we have legislatures and courts. Now, the lobbying begins in earnest. We know what each side’s proposal is.

So, after mounting an eloquent defense of the food trucks, Chandler ends with this:

With buildings crumbling, houses abandoned, schools a mess and jobs evaporating daily, don’t our elected officials have more important things to devote their time to?

As for me. I’m going to file this blog, then finish eating the delicious turkey sandwich I bought from the brick-and-mortar deli located 25 feet from a food truck. They prepared it fast, charged a reasonable price and, most important, it is delicious.

I can’t really think of a more pressing issue for city government to take up than freeing up a new business sector to do business in the city.  I can’t think of something more important for the legislature of a poor city to do than to help enable an entire, brand-new sector of small businesses with comparatively low startup costs to legally operate in the city. The Common Council shouldn’t forever table this bill – on the contrary, it should act on it as soon as possible, and do so in such a way that we end the status quo, which is tantamount to illegal protectionism of restaurants.

I wonder what deli is located 25 feet from a food truck?

How to Suck

28 Oct

Former WNYMedia.net writer and current fellow at the Atlantic Cities, Mark Byrnes (you may remember him from such blogs as “All Things Buffalo“), now expatriated to Baltimore, MD, comments on Brian’s thought-provoking postmortem on the big preservationist conference that rolled into town last week. I reprint it here because I think it’s spot-on, but also because it’s a very clear and concise rebuttal on the “at least they’re trying” coddling of mediocrity in which we engage too often here in Buffalo.

Let’s look at stuff done by local firms only so KPF’s courthouse design is excluded.

The two things that stand out to me as genuinely good architecture by a local firm is 285 Delaware (by HHL) and the Northhamton Lofts @ Artspace, also by HHL (although I believe they recieved significant assistance from a Toronto firm on that design). Cannon is technically local but they know their market well, they know Buffalo is fine with crap so they usually give their clients crap (I’m oversimplifying for the sake of my argument but w/e).

Niagara Center was right before Buffalo Rising, and if that site existed, maybe they would not have gotten away with such crap. But with that location and those clients and that scale of a project-its the most embarrassing building done in Buffalo in my lifetime.

And the Avant is an amazing project that you can’t question. But if you want to pick nits, the curvy form on delaware that pops out is awkward and could have been handled infinitely better (the original drawing was much worse). I feel bad critiquing it because its such a great project but there are some subtly laughable design elements inside and out to those who care.

But it’s not just architecture. Web design is awful in Buffalo because no one cares to pay for a good website, so the good web designers leave (12 Grain Studio is a rare exception). There are no standards for typography or print design in general (Hero, White Bicycle, Montague/Fraser/, Block Club, Martin Group are rare exceptions).

Basically, Buffalo’s problem is that no one is allowed to say that something sucks as long as someone really tries (see what happens when someone tells Newell on BRO that his writing is atrocious). I was not a good designer until I left because I couldn’t find people who had the background or the balls to tell me my stuff was shitty. No one felt comfortable telling me my writing needed serious improvement until I moved away. Buffalo needs to be okay with being told we suck as long as it comes from a good place that is meant to help point us in a better direction.

All of that is so incredibly true. Something to think about. Have a nice day.

Rewind: Welcome, Preservationists!

18 Oct

In honor of the National Preservation Conference, which is taking place in Buffalo this week under the auspices of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I’m re-publishing the “Regular Buffalo Person’s Manifesto”. Chris, Brian, and I wrote it as a specific response to Mark Goldman’s “Obstructionist’s Manifesto“, which was published in the Buffalo News around the same time.

I believe that too often, too many people in this town get away with carrying out their personal bias and ill will because they wrap it in the mantle of preservationism, in which case almost all reasonable discussion and debate magically stops.

Being concerned with hardware is great, but even the best and most beautiful hardware won’t work without competent and reasonable software. – BP

Mark Goldman is a Buffalo icon. He is a doer – a guy who has accomplished literal miracles, notably sparking the turnaround of what is now known as the “Chip Strip”. This sets him apart from the usual suspects who are professional obstructionists, but little else.

Goldman was one of the plaintiffs in the recent, moot lawsuit that sought to block state funds from being used to support the Bass Pro Canal Side project in any way. Some politicians blamed the death of the Bass Pro deal on a “few obstructionists”, and Goldman took to the Buffalo News to proudly claim the mantle, and publish an accompanying “Obstructionist’s Manifesto”.

So, to rebut Goldman’s “obstructionist manifesto” point by point, we present to you the Regular Buffalo Person’s Manifesto, a joint statement prepared by Alan Bedenko, Brian Castner and Christopher Smith. We’re regular people in the Buffalo area who live, work, send kids to school, and pay taxes here and we feel that our voice is often drowned out by a small yet litigious and vocal minority.

Forward this to your representatives and voice your support…or if you’re old school; print it, sign it and send it to your local representatives and tell your friends to do the same. Become a fan on Facebook and spread the word.

The Manifesto of Buffalo’s Regular People

We are regular people; neither obstructionist nor unnecessarily permissive. We believe that development projects should be reviewed and debated on a case-by-case basis, on their own merits. They shouldn’t be demagogued, lied about, or otherwise treated unfairly.

We also believe that small cliques of people whose public personae are defined by their opposition to new development don’t speak for the entire community, despite their claims. We believe that we can speak for ourselves and don’t need to have our interests represented by people who perhaps unintentionally advocate for the failed status quo.

What follows is the manifesto. Live it, learn it, love it.

As a Regular Buffalo Person, I wouldn’t trust heart surgery to a barber, so I believe that city planning should be left to the professional city planners. We have too many hobbyist planners in this town, and they strut about pretending to be experts whilst loaded down with suppositions, overwhelming emotion, and little training. Calling yourself a city planner does not make you one, and whether a particular plan may cause harm or benefit must be weighed on the merits – not on hypothetical situations and feelings.

As a Regular Buffalo Person, I believe that small groups of tightly connected amateur planners with anti-commercial prejudices shouldn’t be the deciding factor in regional planning decisions. As Regular Buffalo Person, I am interested in projects that would lead me to go out of my way; off the beaten track, where I can spend my money and do something fun with my kids.

As a Regular Buffalo Person, I believe that small groups of tightly connected amateur planners and professional plaintiffs should be consistent in the application of their outrage. If millions of dollars ought not be spent to lure a big anchor retailer, those millions ought not be spent to house trendy art galleries, either. But when people appointed by our duly elected officials decide to spend that kind of money, I won’t disingenuously suggest that this happened without public consent, and I won’t be a hypocrite, either.

As a Buffalo Regular Person, I eschew propaganda buzzwords like “big box”, and will not liken the existence of “parking spots” to some unspeakable evil. I recognize contemporary reality, and prefer to look at a particular project as a whole. I’ll also be sure to ask obstructionists why it would be so horrible to duplicate the pedestrian success of the Walden Galleria in a far more attractive waterfront location not unlike what exists at Quincy Market, Byward Market, or any other public marketplace up and down the eastern half of North America.

As a Regular Buffalo Person, I won’t make-believe that small entrepreneurs will somehow be a significant regional draw for a waterfront that is all but uninhabitable for six months out of every year. Sometimes, you have to go big or go home.

As a Regular Buffalo Person, I believe that city planning decisions should be made based on a project’s business plan and likelihood of success. Appeals to “values” or “ideals” or “aspirations” of the region invite divisive, subjective debate, leaving no one happy. There is a reason why development projects are seldom subjected to referenda. When proposed projects have undergone a decade’s worth of vetting, it’s somewhat silly to suggest that they’re sudden, novel, or being rammed down anyone’s throat. As a Regular Buffalo Person, I won’t wait until the absolute last minute to express my displeasure with a project that’s all but ready to go.

The absolute last thing that should be done about Buffalo’s inner harbor is to subject it to a citywide citizens’ committee of ideas. Each person – each participant would have a different idea, and implementation of it might be a fun civic exercise, but little else. If the obstructionist class in Buffalo is intent on opposing every single project that is suggested for the inner harbor, then there’s little sense in doing anything at all. The street grid should be re-established and cobbled, utilities should be brought in, the area should be zoned, and then the city should let the market have at it.

As a Regular Buffalo Person, I don’t want to participate in some sort of “submit your idea” crowdsourcing method of planning. The people whose idea or vision is rejected will simply become the next round of obstructionists, lying and suing to get their way.

As a Regular Buffalo Person, I will not define my support or objection to a proposed development or project based primarily on whomever is leading the effort. I will be open-minded, listen to proposals and make educated evaluations. I will be judicious and serious and will weigh the costs and benefits before speaking my mind.

As a Regular Buffalo Person, I will not define each and every project as an epic class warfare struggle nor will I support others who engage in such behavior.

As a Regular Buffalo Person, I will evaluate the merits of a project on its value to the region, writ large. No more parochial thinking, we are a region that will either rise or fall as one, we must begin to act like it.

Given the current economic state of western New York, given the fact that downtown Buffalo is completely bereft of any meaningful retail whatsoever – and has been thus for thirty-something years – and given the fact that the Canal Side area has been bare for more decades still, the ultimate obstructionist dream is to let it lie fallow under the shadow of the Skyway, an empty memorial to what might have been.

Perhaps we could file a suit to express our displeasure at the Bass Pro deal being killed. Perhaps we should recognize that without a huge, well-paying employer like HSBC, there will be significantly fewer people in town to visit art galleries, drink wine at trendy-yet-gritty bars, buy tchotchkes, and sup at the taco truck.

Neither the obstructionist few, nor the developers speak for us. We speak for ourselves.

That is our Regular Buffalo Person’s manifesto.

Mayor of Braddock, PA is transforming a deserted town into a thriving community

6 Oct

Source: spot.us (http://s.tt/13q4B)


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.

What Could Have Been

19 Sep

Click to enlarge

So many words have been written about where WNY went wrong, mistakes we’ve made, how we’ve been a field town and not a HQ for much of the last century, and how we’ve ceded businesses, people, industry, and ideas to other parts of the country.

We’re trying to reverse that decline now through the growth and promotion of a knowledge-based economy.  Big, subsidized projects like the medical corridor and UB expansion on the one hand, and small business incubators and venture capital networks on the other, are slowly making a very real impact, helping to lurch this region out of a longstanding economic, social, and (hopefully, eventually) political morass.

But rewind some 60 years, and there was a plan in place that, had it been implemented, would have guaranteed that Southern Ontario and Western New York would have been an economic powerhouse.

Navy Island is an uninhabited green blip on the map, sitting in the Niagara River between Grand Island and the Ontario shore.  After World War II, as the United Nations was being formulated and ideas for its headquarters were being considered, Navy Island was a top contender.  Because of its location between – and easy access from – two friendly nations, Navy Island would have been a better symbolic choice for the UN than the East Side of Manhattan, and a less expensive, less congested one, as well.  Turning a small island over to a peacekeeping organization with deep pockets, turning it into an international zone employing and attracting tens of thousands of diplomatic, secretarial, and administrative staff to southern Ontario and western New York would have had a billion-dollar impact today.

The ancillary economic impact from all those well-remunerated people engaging in the local economy is unfathomable today, and would have attracted businesses, schools, investors, people, and money.

Instead, the UN is on the East River, on land bought with a donation from the Rockefellers.  Had the UN been located in WNY, I wonder how much different this region would be, how it would look, how it would have evolved.

Image courtesy of Niagara Falls, ON Library.

The State of Buffalo’s Creative Gig Economy

7 Sep

Turns out I’m not the special unique snowflake I thought I was. Turns out I’m a  special unique snowflake that looks just like one-third of the US workforce.

When I moved back to Buffalo four plus years ago, I had trouble finding a “real” job. You know, one where I put on a shirt and tie everyday and went to the same office and did the same thing and derived the majority of the family income from one employer and got health insurance and a retirement plan. A job where I worked 60 hours a week for one organization and structured my life around that schedule. A job that looked a lot like the military career I was leaving, at least as far as pay, healthcare, vacation, advancement opportunity and an office with a computer were concerned.

So instead I settled for a tenuous, shadowy unreal job: full time consultant. I made a home office, incorporated for the tax advantages, got a business credit card, and hired myself out to a DC-based defense contractor. Buffalo was my bedroom community, and my “employer” flew me around the country for work. I got irregular paychecks, no health insurance or retirement plan, and had to hire an accountant to make sure I paid correctly into income taxes, social security and unemployment insurance (which, being effectively self-employed, I’d never be able to claim). I worked when the work was available, and vacation meant not only no pay, but the fear that I’d be passed over for the next consulting job.

Over time I’ve added to the income stew. I raft guide on the weekends and am trying to write more, finishing a book and finding magazines that pay. My wife started her own consulting company on the side to pick up extra work and do the statistical research she enjoys. Between the two of us, we have six jobs: one real one (hers) that doesn’t pay well but provides the family health insurance, and five fake ones that provide a mix of personal satisfaction and funding for everything from daycare to date night. All this time my self talk, the little voice of Catholic guilt and inadequacy in my head, has told me that my inability to secure a “real” job is a fundamental failure. All this freelancing is just temporary playing around. My situation, no matter the actual enjoyment I derive out of it, is less desirable than the stability and structure of a “real” job. If I am part of a general statistic, it is the increased unemployment rate among military veterans.

Spot Coffee - how much work is happening here?

Turns out the group I should have tossed myself into is the growing Gig Economy (a clever play on words, referencing both the electronics and temp job slang) as a ronin, now 33% of the American workforce.

For Labor Day, The Atlantic magazine has run a series of stories on the new freelance economy, which they describe this way:

It’s been called the Gig Economy, Freelance Nation, the Rise of the Creative Class, and the e-conomy, with the “e” standing for electronic, entrepreneurial, or perhaps eclectic. Everywhere we look, we can see the U.S. workforce undergoing a massive change. No longer do we work at the same company for 25 years, waiting for the gold watch, expecting the benefits and security that come with full-time employment. We’re no longer simply lawyers, or photographers, or writers. Instead, we’re part-time lawyers-cum- amateur photographers who write on the side.

This idea isn’t new – Richard Florida has been hawking books about his Creative Class for years – but the uncertain economy is bringing the issue to a head. The Atlantic notes that the government doesn’t even collect statistics about this nebulous world of freelancing. We may be caught in a cycle where companies are waiting for certain business stats (unemployment rate, etc) to improve before they invest their piles of cash, but the economy has so fundamentally changed, and the government statisticians are so far behind, that they might as well be waiting for Godot. Higher old-fashioned unemployment rates in urban areas becomes a reflection of the size of the freelance culture, while low rates in the Great Plains simply means everyone is still stuck in a “real” job.

The Atlantic rightly notes that the labor laws of our country are based in a New Deal vision of the workforce, and the protections it delivers workers (unionization, limited workweek, healthcare, vacation, etc) mean little in a freelance world. Particularly galling is the recent uninspired Healthcare Reform legislation that doubles down on propping up insurance companies and the employer based system of providing care. The limited healthcare Co-Ops, slow to be implemented and unknown to most, barely scratch the surface of the necessary reforms. In time, President Obama’s compromised initiative may well look a lot like France’s pre-World War II investment in the Maginot Line: hopelessly and embarrassingly archaic, a failure of vision.

Closer to home, Buffalo has never fared well on comparative Creative Class rankings, and its worth asking if we collectively even want to. Our energies are still directed at attracting and retaining companies with traditional jobs (like most of the rest of the country, to be fair) in sectors of the economy not conducive to freelancing: specialized manufacturing, cross-border logistics, food processing. But like much else in Buffalo, there is organic timely change happening at the fringe, outside of the official channel – Accidental Success as I have called it. The Main Washington Exchange is attracting start ups and freelancers. Kissling Interests made a splash converting the old casket company into live-work lofts in Allentown, though one better be a successful freelancer to afford the rent. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, our dark horse in plain view, has opened the Innovation Center adjacent to the old Trico plant to attract fledgling bio-research companies. These “companies” tend to be individual scientists looking for lab space, freelancers in all but name in their chosen field.

The idea of a small business incubator is well known. What would a freelance incubator look like? Something beyond free wi-fi and strong brew at the downtown coffee shops? Is the MWE the answer? Do we need ten more? Or is the whole question anachronistic itself, and the answer already exists online, a virtual community that gets freelance tips from robo Twitter accounts?

Building An Entrepreneurial Buffalo, Part 2

19 Aug

‘Earlier this week, I wrote about making Buffalo and WNY a more entrepreneurial city and region and questioned whether the importation of innovation was the most effective way to improve our economy.

In many ways, the notion of “imported innovation” is the core tenet of our local economic development strategy.  We strive to identify companies who will move here or we struggle to keep existing companies here, but we do little to help generate innovation and entrepreneurship.

I took a stab at identifying the core issues that hold us back from making Buffalo’s entrepreneurial engine roar once again.

The reason Buffalo struggles to innovate is related to the lack of an innovation community, a self-perpetuating problem.  We lack a thriving community of innovative and energetic entrepreneurs who are willing to take risks.  Sure, there are some, but they are a disconnected group and access to capital to fund their ideas is limited, at best.

So, in essence, the problem set is defined as follows:

  • Lack of leadership on economic development from elected officials
  • A crumb hoarding mentality from wide swaths of our existing business community
  • Lack of capital for innovative small companies
  • Lack of an innovative and networked entrepreneurial community

Well, damn. That’s a big sticky problem, eh? No wonder our elected officials focus on the window dressing, this is a tough problem to tackle.

I think I have the skeleton of a solution, but I’ll need your help to flesh it out. This idea has come from lengthy discussions with a dozen or so young emerging entrepreneurs over the last year or so (our own pocket network effect).  We figured if we want to empower entrepreneurship, we should start by asking others to help us create the vision.

We start with a community wide venture capital investment fund.  One in which we all pay what we can to fund the next wave of companies that will employ our friends, neighbors and our children.  Let’s stop looking for someone else to save us when the answer is right in our own wallets. If our Mayor and civic leaders are disinterested in signing up for the Kiva City program, we’ll take the idea of their program and use it to inspire our own.

Kiva City extends microfinance to small businesses across America. With Kiva City, credit unions or other financial institutions partner at a local level to facilitate the loans, while community groups and civic leaders build awareness among small business owners and refer them to the program.

The basic concept is that not every business idea needs a $500,000-$10,000,000 initial investment.  Most need some seed funding for basic salaries, access to technology and office space, time, mentorship and community.  A good example of what this would look like is a community funded version of Y-Combinator.

Y Combinator does seed funding for startups. Seed funding is the earliest stage of venture funding. It pays your expenses while you’re getting started.

Some companies may need no more than seed funding. Others will go through several rounds. There is no right answer; how much funding you need depends on the kind of company you start.

At Y Combinator, our goal is to get you through the first phase. This usually means: get you to the point where you’ve built something impressive enough to raise money on a larger scale.  We make small investments (rarely more than $20,000) in return for small stakes in the companies we fund (usually 2-10%).

Y Combinator has a novel approach to seed funding: we fund startups in batches. There are two each year, one from January through March and one from June through August. During each cycle we fund multiple startups.

So, we combine the best of two programs to make our own, The Buffalo Fund.

We estimate that we’ll need live/work space and an initial funding stream of $2,000,000 to fund 8-10 companies at a maximum of $20,000 in the first year.  Ideally, we want to raise money from the community, in small denominations.  We want everyone invested in the idea of creating innovation and the companies which will employ the people of our region.  Let’s stop thinking of economic development as a top-down planning mechanism and treat it like a grassroots campaign.  When people are invested in the business community, even at a small scale, they become active participants in the local business environment.  Not pawns in a multi-national corporate game of pleasing distant shareholders.  We begin to think locally, we begin to empower entrepreneurs, we begin to see what’s possible.

We aim to build companies that look beyond the horizon of our own region and export their goods and services to the nation and the world. We’ll utilize our intellectual capital to create our own network effect.

Is it possible to raise $2,000,000 in Western New York through small donations from Joe Six-Pack in Lancaster and Tom Twelve-Pack in Hamburg?  Maybe.  However, we’d need to identify some larger investors who are not part of the existing power structure to provide our own seed funding and provide the mentorship for these budding entrepreneurs.

Each investor, no matter how small, get a weighted vote on which businesses get funded.  There will be a fund manager and a CEO hired who will report to a board of directors elected by the wider membership.  The board will manage the program, provide leadership and advise the membership.  Everyone is eligible for a leadership position as half of the board would rotate each year.  This would be a corporation, not a non-profit.

During the startup phase, we group the entreprenuers together and they hack away at their projects with legal oversight and receive guidance from guest speakers, advisers, and business planners.  We set them up for success by letting them focus on their business idea while giving them the tools to grow the idea.

So, I’ll leave it to you to tell me what you think.  Add to the idea, tell me what we’re missing or what we have right.  We’re walking the idea around town to people we’ve identified as potential partners and seed investors and I’ll post updates as the idea either blossoms or stalls.

It’s time we took control of our economic future, help make it happen.


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.