Tag Archives: Grass is not always greener

The Grass is Not Always Greener: Tex-Mex Fears

16 Nov

The fierce yin and yang of America’s divergent relationship with its two borders is embodied in two provincial border cities: Buffalo in the north, and El Paso in the south. Here our concerns are greater engagement with Canada, the easing of border restrictions, developing an economic plan to build off bi-national trade. Here our elected officials (the incoming county executive, for instance) call for using the border as a business engine. Here we regularly cross north for weekends in Toronto and chinese food.

There, in El Paso, the prime concern is safety from Mexico, enforcing strict border restrictions, and shutting down the most profitable of cross border trades (mules carrying drugs, guns and workers). There elected officials call for ranchers to arm themselves from spillover violence among and between drug cartels and federales. There vacation cross border traffic stopped a long time ago.

The last time I wrote about El Paso after a visit, I said the smell of burning garbage, intense desert heat, and sounds of gunfire in the distance reminded me of Iraq. Last week I returned again, but as we stayed in a hotel north of the city and further from the border, I didn’t get any unwanted flashbacks this time.

While I was there I heard news of a poll, asking Texans to rank the top challenges for Texas and the country as a whole. Like much of the rest of the country, Texans rank “the economy” as the United States’ chief concern. But locally, they are more worried about “immigration.” While to us Blue State northerners this may conjure images of xenophobic Red State racists, talking to actual Texans (not surprisingly) yields a far more nuanced picture. New York may envy Texas’ economic engine, but certainly not the border issues. 

In places like El Paso and Laredo and Corpus Christi, large Latino populations predate the United States or State of Texas; the border moved, not the people. With families split by the river and an open relationship between the two countries, people and goods moved back and forth unofficially, under the radar, but mainly peacefully. A rancher I spoke to, who grew up in south west Texas, remembers fondly the days of mutually positive relationships between land owners and migrant workers; days that are now as far away as the old timer’s childhoods.

That less-than-legal but tacitly-accepted easy relationship has been replaced by fear and anger. Not fear of “immigrants,” and the jobs they may take or strain they put on social services (Texas is not California), but fear of violence: murders and kidnapping. The anger is almost exclusively reserved for the Obama administration, perceived as ineffectual at best, and purposely and dangerously ignorant at worst.

First, the situation. Some 40,000 odd people have died in Mexico since 2006 as a result of the war between various drug cartel factions and the Mexican government. In the last year, the violence has increased in both volume and scope: more deaths than ever, and more gruesome methods (car bombs, chainsaw beheadings (I’m not linking to it), targeting of social media reporters). To Texans, this violence is not academic – the majority is happening a couple of miles away, especially on the border town of Ciudad Juarez, and is crossing the border in under-reported ways. The reported murder rate for Americans in Mexico is up 300%, but that figure only includes voluntary reports to the State Department, not reports from Mexican officials. American gangs are increasingly linked to Mexican cartels. Locals will tell you that while the vast vast majority of bodies are found on the Mexican side of the border, the general suspicion is that at least some are killed here and dumped there.

In response to this trend, Texan and federal government officials have mostly squabbled. Texan politicians feel like the feds aren’t taking the situation seriously, as evidenced by President Obama denying a meeting on the issue with Governor Perry. In Washington, officials are uneasy about the scope of the response already: fences and border patrol and deployed national guard. When the Obama Administration does act, it does so incompetently – a major story down south (and mostly ignored this far north) is the bungling of FBI/ATF Operation Fast and Furious. That firearm sting operation sent 2000 functioning and untracked weapons to Mexico, 1400 of which are unaccounted for. When locals take efforts into their own hands, tragic mistakes inevitably follow.

Fear and anger. Beneath the failed Birther rhetoric that creeps into the vocal frustration is a basic human fear of violence. Fear for one’s family. Fear of a way of life taken, not by economic force but physical force. Anger that a Border Patrol agent was killed by an errant gun from the Fast and Furious operation, and no one in the federal government (especially AG Holder) has taken responsibility. Frustration that a war is happening a mile or two away and the rest of the country doesn’t know or care. STRATFOR, the Austin-based private global intel company, has declared Mexico is nearing failed state status. Is anyone paying attention?

A Mirror Image Across the Lakes

13 Jul

I left Buffalo in 1995 to go to college at Marquette University in Milwaukee. My seventeen year old brain put less thought into the decision than I probably want to admit; it was far enough way (12 hours) to be free of the parents, but enough like Buffalo that I felt at home. In fact, as college wore on, I often described Milwaukee as Buffalo with just a little more money and a couple more people. A manufacturing center on a Great Lake, Milwaukee provided plenty of Buffalo parallels, down to the heavily segregated African-American dominated slums just off the central core, the proximity to a city of 5 million 90 minutes away, and the tradition of ethnic foods and festivals. Milwaukee had some built in advantages (being the biggest city in a state is key), and made some more pleasant planning choices a long time ago (their Delaware Ave Millionaires Row stretches for five magnificent miles up the Lake Michigan coast, and Marquette University’s 15,000 students lie approximately at the corner of Broadway and Jefferson) but all in all, the two cities could have been twins.

Not the CBD skyline, just new condo towers along the lake front

I returned to Milwaukee last month for the first time in 12 years, and am sorry to say that I would not describe the Buffalo/Milwaukee dichotomy similarly now. Metro Milwaukee has grown while Buffalo has shrunk, and that is reflected in the scale of development and progress. More importantly, John Norquist’s 16 year reign as mayor was good for the city, evidenced in a variety of successes, particularly on the waterfront. Yes, an evil four lane parkway “separates” the lakefront park from the city, but bike and pedestrian bridges crisscross it, and connect lines of new condo towers to parks for picnic and play. Milwaukee built a new world-class art museum on the water, a giant sail (or whale’s butt, according to my wife) of white steel where I saw an exhibition of treasures from the Forbidden City on its only US stop, and a Great Lakes aquarium/museum/indoor dock of a working schooner similar to grand ideas I have seen for Buffalo.

As we collectively enjoy the progress that has been made on our own waterfront, incremental but real, let’s not forget some of the larger dreams and visions we had for the site. A city of similar stature, starting from a similar point, built both attractions in less than a decade. Let’s not sell ourselves short.

Buffalo can do better, but in keeping with the theme of realistic expectations and a new mentality, let me move on to a more grounded, immediately achievable Milwaukee trend. While pretty to look at and key structural elements to an enjoyable urban space, I want to measure my enthusiasm for glass and steel, and not put too much stock in counting condo towers and flashy buildings. The high end signs of wealth in a city are the result of change, not the first step; the outcome of “market forces” that often feel beyond our collective control. What can we do now?

I say begin with the bike paths.

Fortunately, we are not starting from scratch in this regard. Work has been done on the Inner and Outer Harbors, and the connection of Delaware Park to the river via Scajaquada Creek a couple of years ago was big. Unfortunately, I just described nearly all of Buffalo’s dedicated bike paths, and a quick review of the two maps obviously indicates how far ahead Milwaukee is.

Bike paths are most useful when two main criteria are met: 1) they are dedicated  (and thus safer) and 2) they connect places people want to go. Much like a subway system, bike paths flourish when they connect destinations, but are not a destination in and of themselves. Currently, Buffalo’s paths are often utilized by people who load their bike on a car and then drive it to the path to ride and enjoy. A better system is for a path to lie close enough to my home that I can bike a couple blocks of city streets to access it, and then take the path to my destination. Milwaukee County regionally runs the parks and bike path system, and effectively connects its first ring suburbs to downtown, utilizing former rail corridors and river banks. But they didn’t come easy – when a crossing of a major road was required, Milwaukee built steel bridges and significant infrastructure, a manageable expense for a city and county with a surplus, but a real one.

What I found along the bike paths was also important. Not only were they being utilized significantly, from the suburbs to the inner city, but groups chose to place themselves along the paths because they craved the convenient access, like fast food restaurants at an interstate rest stop. One such group floored me: the Urban Ecology Center.

The UEC blends many non-profit missions, but with a twist for which Buffalo has no equivalent. They run educational programs for children (like the Buffalo Science Museum) and for adults (like Riverkeeper) in science, the environment and ecology, the scope of which is breathtaking. They do urban farming classes like Urban Roots. They keep animals like the Buffalo Zoo. They do restoration along the river and in marshes like Tifft. And they do all of it in a new green building along a bike path in the equivalent of Delaware Park.

I see the existence of such a place as an indication of the community’s interest in sustainability, education and ecological restoration. The good news is Buffalo has exhibits many of these qualities in smaller scope, in a variety of groups, dispersed around the region. Now let’s do more.

Brain Gain: A How-To Guide

8 Jun

I haven’t been able to get “American Pie” out of my head for the last week.

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The continuing fallout from the Buffalo: For Realz debacle has produced little #Winning, but already its fair share of predictable and sarcastic appropriations. When contemplating how bad something is, when challenged to put the full criticism into words, one naturally seeks out a good example of the same phenomenon for comparison. Thank you to regular reader and commenter Eisenbart for pointing us in the direction of Grand Rapids’ lipdub phenomenon, 2.8 million views on Youtube and counting.

Please note that the video is not perfect. Locals protested that the crowd looks whitewashed, and doesn’t represent the actual demographic makeup of the city. Rob Bliss – director, organizer, and famed ArtPrize contestant (more on ArtPrize in a moment) – took a bit of heat for picking a suburban marching band (versus a city-based school’s) and choosing the poshest of architectural backdrops, including those of the city’s wealthiest developers. Some even asked if the $25,000 cost could have been better spent at the local Foodbank or on other development programs.

Every city has its warts, and locals excel at noting them (see: WNYMedia). But I think a resident of Buffalo will notice other details first: the energy, the community organization, the youth (of Mr. Bliss and the crowd), the lack of boarded up buildings. Could Buffalo film a similar video that covered the same amount of real estate, in a similarly prominent place (downtown), and not end up with a giant undeveloped hole or abandoned and decaying building in the background? I’ll even give you a free pass to not count the Statler in your calculations. I’m not sure I can think of one.

While Buffalo considers conventions and videos as cures to the city’s ills, Grand Rapids rightly sees this manifestation of civic pride as a by-product of other successful efforts, not a substitute for the effort itself. Grand Rapids presses on growing, pulling in young, talented residents who are attracted to the area as a fun place to be. As Buffalo struggles with its Brain Gain, we could note this as a How-To Guide.

The parallels and similarities between Grand Rapids and Buffalo are numerous. Both are the second largest city in their state, well behind the front runner. Both were incorporated before 1850, and settled much earlier. Both are roughly 50 square miles of city proper, with sprawling suburbs. Buffalo has a larger city population (260K vs 190K), but a smaller total combined statistical area (1.2 M vs 1.3 M). Both have large state universities, growing medical research campuses, and national cancer centers (Roswell Park and Lacks).  But now the stories begin to diverge. Both cities produced Presidents: Grover Cleveland and Gerald Ford. Both cities’ skylines are dominated by a single, mid-30ish story tower: ours is 40 years old and may be abandoned by its banking tenant, Grand Rapids’ opened in 2008, and is the tallest condo tower in Michigan. Both cities have several rich families who do the majority of the philanthropic work. Buffalo’s lived 70 years ago; Grand Rapids’ live now.

One cannot understand Grand Rapids without considering the DeVos Family and Peter Cook. Richard DeVos founded the scourge of suburban commerce, Amway, and became a billionaire in the process. His son, Dick, ran for governor of Michigan in 2005, forwarded no horseporn emails, and honorably lost to Jennifer Granholm. His grandson, Rick, organizes ArtPrize, the most wildly successful new art program in the country. Only two years old, ArtPrize offers $250K of Grandpa’s money to the winner of world’s largest public art competition. For one month, 200K visitors flock to Grand Rapids to see works by international artists, hung and performed in venues all over the city’s central core, from museums to restaurants. Kickstarter, a TED darling, has a special fund just for the event. Rob Bliss’ entry consisted of 100,000 paper airplanes released from a downtown skyscraper. The excitement of the public voting for the winner creates a palpable buzz that takes over the city.

Peter Cook, who died only a couple months ago at age 96, was a self-made billionaire who made his fortune running companies after rising from the factory floor. The Grand Rapids skyline was largely fashioned by Cook, who gave money (hundreds of millions in total) for the construction of nearly every hospital, medical research center, performing arts palace, and educational institute in town. He also had his fingers all over the development of Millennium Park, an old gypsum mine and garbage dump now transformed into an urban wilderness park full of woods, lakes, and bike trails, along the Grand River and in the tradition of Portland’s Forest Park. At 1500 acres, it is double the size all of Buffalo’s Olmsted Parks combined.

To put it in Buffalo’s terms, if the Rich’s and Jacobs’ acted like the DeVos’ and Cook’s, Bob Rich would have bought Canalside, built something nice on it, and then given it back to the city. Would this have made us happy in Buffalo? It’s working well in Grand Rapids.

And still we haven’t even talked about the River Bank Run, double the size of the Turkey Trot, at 22,000 runners. Or the plan to put the rapids back on the Grand and make it a mecca for whitewater kayakers. Or a variety of other schemes specifically designed to attract and appeal to young urbanites and outdoor lovers.

Note that many of Grand Rapid’s initiatives are similar to plans or programs Buffalo already has, just a bigger, more energized, more present version. Buffalo has a small thriving local arts scene, but the public face we present and promote is the Albright-Knox – a treasure to be sure, but full of art our rich families bought decades ago, things we managed to acquire in the past. Contrast that with ArtPrize, which brings tourists to Grand Rapids for a month to see new art in public places all over the city right now.

So how is it that when Grand Rapids and Buffalo have mirror image programs – LiveWest and Buffalo First, Friends of Grand Rapid’s Parks and the Olmsted Park Conservancy, Winterwest and the Powder Keg Festival, Green Grand Rapids (and a 2002 Master Plan that seems to actually be followed) and Buffalo Green Code – the final product is a fun, hip vibe for Grand Rapids, but an old white guy talking about old buildings full of old white people for Buffalo, a city you aren’t moving to? Would Buffalo be in a different position if it had two philanthropy minded entrepreneurs and the hemorrhaging city of Detroit as a state-mate? Or is there more?

A Driving Tour of Our Hopes and Fears

1 Jun

There is no good way to drive from Buffalo to Washington, DC.

Pull out a map (that would be the app on your smart phone, I doubt you have a paper one lying around), and pick an interstate that goes mostly south and a little east. You can take the 219 straight south, but once the much-delayed “ski-country express” peters out you must endure one-streetlight towns from Springville to nearly Altoona, where Interstate 99 awaits. You can take the 90 to the 390, but eventually you will be forced to cross the swath of hilly Pennsylvania that lies between you and the civilized Turnpike or I-270. Urbanphiles and those scared of twangy banjos go a hundred miles out of their way by shoe-horning Pittsburgh on the itinerary. The route then becomes all Interstate, at the cost of some hours.

Nothing makes one feel more provincial, more disconnected from the halls of power, than having to drive two hundred miles of two-lane highway through ramshackle ville’s on the way to your nation’s capital.

I still enjoy traveling and exploring those blank areas on my personal travel map, so despite the hazard of boring my wife and children who accompanied me, I braved rural central Pennsylvania. In doing so I passed through lands that could not be more unlike my final destination: coal and (lately) fracking country.

To the debaters of New York’s still unresolved hydro-fracking policy, northern Pennsylvania simultaneously offers the clearest evidence of both sides of the argument. To briefly review, drilling for natural gas has been occurring for decades in New York and Pennsylvania, and hydro-fracturing (or “fracking” as opponents call it so it sounds as much like “fucking” as possible) is a common process to extract the fuel. Hydro-fracturing the rock involves pumping a combination of water and chemicals into the shale beneath the ground. This ruptures the pockets of methane, allowing them to be extracted. The Marcellus Shale, significantly deeper than the rock that has been traditionally exploited and is now largely played out, has long been known as an additional, previously inaccessible, storer of significant natural gas deposits. Until High Volume Horizontal Hydro-Fracking (HVHHF) was invented, where the drill bit bores down much deeper and then horizontally across a bed of natural gas, it was either an engineering nightmare or not cost feasible to drill. The miracle of modern science has made the previously impossible now profitable, and New York and Pennsylvania have taken opposite approaches to this development.

In seeking jobs and economic development (as well as a cleaner burning energy source than coal or gasoline), Pennsylvania has opened large sections of the state to exploration. To avoid environmental damage and costs to human health, New York state has imposed a moratorium on HVHHF (though traditional fracking continues on shallower beds). The Buffalo Common Council even took the comical action of banning hyrdo-fracking within the city. While this did inspire other municipalities to take the same action, know there is no Marcellus Shale beneath Buffalo, and there was no danger of wells in Delaware Park. To hear the natural gas companies tell it, prosperity reigns across Pennsylvania, and down-on-their-luck New York State towns are foolish for throwing so much money away. To hear the environmentalists describe it, Pennsylvania is now a wasteland, carved up with pipelines and wells, flush with briny contaminants, and suffocated with semi-trucks.

Does it surprise anyone that I saw neither of these extremes on my own tour?

Rural Pennsylvania – from the New York line, through to Mount Jewett, Ridgway, Philipsburg, and the outskirts of State College – looks much as it has for many decades I am sure: dirty, poor, struggling, proud. Like Chris Matthews in a wet t-shirt contest, rural PA shows off its goods even when it shouldn’t. There is no poverty quite like rural, Appalachian poverty. Yes, when you drive through Bradford on the 219 you pass a massive flaring gas refinery. But that is hardly new:

Semi-trucks and traffic do clog the narrow, winding roads, but I saw far more coal-bearers and retail trailers bound for Walmart or McDonalds than tanker trucks carrying wastewater from mining operations. In only one section, and away from any refineries, I smelled the musty sulphur of natural gas for a full mile of driving; odd, and indicatve of a problem to be remedied, since the distinctive smell of natural gas is added later, indicating I was detecting finished product. Coal and natural gas companies are famous for obscuring the worst of their abuses behind a green facade. Outside Penfield, the tree canopy veneer could barely conceal the open top coal mine, and the highway was stained black, pure jet mounds lining the shoulder of the road like old, dirty snow. But you can’t hide wells and mines when the land opens to vista, and you can see a hundred square miles of rolling wooded hill and mountain in a single glance. I saw no natural gas flares, no clear-cut construction sites, and only a single pipeline, buried and less of a disruptive cut through the forest than the smallest of powerline right-of-way.

At the same time, I saw no new strip malls, no sprawling McMansion cul-de-sacs, no Lexus dealerships and Benz’s, no new lofts in downtown Bradford, and no easing of the boarded up blight in every historic nucleus of each sad town. The booming gas trade did not provide shoes for any more children, or new schools for them to learn in, than had clearly been modestly available for many years past.

It was clear this land had been settled and exploited for generations, and fracking provided few of the benefits, and no more of the ills, than the tough residents had learned to endure. If my albeit brief observation is any indication, a resident of Corning should neither hope nor fear hydro-fracking. Life appears much the same before and after its advent. It is neither the source of, nor solution to, every problem.

Contrast this alternating beautiful and depressing land with my final destination, the genuine boom-town of Northern Virginia. Washington may now qualify as a megopolis – it draws commuters from several thousand square miles, and creates traffic in four states, plus the district itself. My hotel was in the true mixed-use utopia of Rosslyn, just across the river from Georgetown and the Mall, and north of the cemetery and Crystal City office complex. In Rosslyn every tower is foodie on the bottom (trendy restaurants or Safeway), and business and living up top. One regularly encounters visions a hopeful resident of Buffalo’s Avant or AM&A’s Warehouse lofts can only dream off – streams of business suit clad workers leaving their homes in one tower to walk to work in an adjacent one. A packed Metro pouring additional pedestrians into DC proper. Runners and bikers at all hours of the day and night swarming the dedicated paths and lanes. There are street signs for the bike/running paths, so numerous and interconnected are they. On one morning, while out for a run to Roosevelt Island to visit my favorite President, I encountered a continuous packed throng jogging in the other direction. Had I accidently stumbled upon a race? No, just running clubs swelling the paths to capacity at 7am on a Saturday.

What does it take to create such an urban heaven? I think its fair to say that the ever-churning, ever-growing, ever-contracting and consulting government bureaucracy has more to do with Northern Virginia’s success than historic tax breaks and incentives. Government lays the well-oiled ground work to make the area livable: the ubiquitous paths, public transportation and police every two blocks. But good-old fashioned capitalism, the kind whose only incentive is making more money, brings the workers, investment, and mile after mile of gleaming office tower.

Buffalo is not in danger of being overwhelmed with natural gas fracking wells. Nor are we likely to incentive our way to Northern Virginia. We remain what we are: the provincial middle.

My Broken Record Continues to Skip

6 Apr

Andrew Kulyk, sports writer and prodigious traveler, has penned (typed?) a series of articles over the last several weeks on the continuing baby steps, two forward and three back, at Canalside. His frustration boils off the screen – as half the dynamic duo of the Ultimate Sports Road Trip, Andrew has visited 120ish major sports venues, and countless minor league and college parks and stadiums. By extension, he has visited a similar number of arena districts, seen success and failure, and as a proud city resident and downtown booster, Andrew wants for his city and region what he sees elsewhere. His basic question: why can Oklahoma City have nice things and we can’t?

Flip that coin and you find a series of articles I have written under the rubric The Grass is Not Always Greener. Having lived in five states before moving back to WNY, and traveling regularly for my paying job, I constantly observed that Buffalo’s problems are not unique. We idealize the places our cousins and children have moved to (Charlotte! Boulder!), but they have their share of problems as well – in some cases inflated versions of our own, in others issues that we’ve managed to lick. Budget deficits are worse in Colorado Springs, half completed rotting casino steel is more prevalent in Las Vegas, border issues are beyond the pale in El Paso, Tacoma is rebuilt but empty, New Haven’s banking industry is shrinking at the expense of ours, and Yakima provides a cautionary tale of a central city with no suburban tax base. We aren’t the only city or metro region with an industrial past trying to reinvent itself – why should we act as though things are so much worse here. 

Andrew and I each write about the same problem. Buffalo lacks more than people. Beyond anything else, most of insulated Buffalo lacks perspective.

This limitation clouds our judgment and imagination. With hundreds of millions of state dollars in hand, we can’t figure out what to build on our waterfront. We berate new data center projects (and sue to block them) because of the piles of incentives it takes to land such an investment, without realizing that same game is played all over the country. I recently returned from Columbia, South Carolina, where Amazon is seeking free land (worth $4 million), a 50% reduction in property taxes, a tax credit for each job created, and a permanent elimination of all sales taxes on every item they ship through their new warehouse. This is for low wage (albeit numerous) shipping and packing jobs, not high end creative class positions.

But there are also more subtle, insidious effects of this lack of perspective – our perceived successes and failures are also skewed. We point to the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus as proof of revitalization, without realizing every Rust Belt city with a state university and lots of old people has similar plans. At the same time, our collective low self-esteem, after watching so many move out, paints an oily defeatist coating over that which remains. As Kristen Becker put it recently in Buffalo Spree (to paraphrase): people assume that because I’m doing comedy in Buffalo, and haven’t left, I must not be any good at it.

And there is the contradictory rub: we can’t tell which of our ideas (or talents) are truly fresh bellwethers, and which are rehashed or carbon copy efforts that merely help us keep up with the Jones’s, not break new ground. I am a regular reader of West Coast Perspective at Buffalo Rising. Despite his perch in California, he always gets construction news, architectural drawings and the inside scoop before anyone else. But along with the nuts and bolts I wish West Coast Perspective provided a bit of . . . perspective. Editorialize, and put the project into context. Headlines could be rewritten to: “Law Firm gets tax break to renovate Main Street Brownstone – Continues emptying of Main Place Tower.” Or: “Church renovates two historic structures – Totally not a big deal – this happens everyday in most cities and no one notices.” Or: “New hotel design would look bad even in Detroit.” This might separate the wheat from the chaff; the treading-water turnover from the genuine quality development. 

What is the source of this insulation? Blame our lack of a brain gain. Blame our greying population that has known little besides Buffalo’s regular decline. Blame our blue-collar culture that values hard work and loyalty over entrepreneurship and innovation. Whatever the source, the system is becoming self-reinforcing. Recently, the University of Buffalo, Canisius College, and the NFTA all replaced their top leadership, and they all hired from within. 

To bury the headline, Buffalo is neither as good nor as bad as we think. My personal frustration in working to make Buffalo “better” is wading through the layers of homeliness to some common ground truth, a collective base value, that determines what is possible and then imagines something more. Our discussions of “progress” are aborted by ignorance of any outside measuring stick.

I feel as though everything I have written here I have written somewhere else over the past two years at WNYMedia. But sometimes, the basics bear repeating.

True Budget Woes

9 Dec

It seems particularly appropriate that during our collective hyperventilating over chump change in the Erie County budget that we should seek a comparative example to show what true austerity and funding cuts look like. Welcome back to Colorado Springs, a city I last profiled in my Grass is Not Always Greener series almost six months ago.

To review, Colorado Springs is growing a rapid clip thanks to massive federal investment, high tech jobs, and a multitude of displaced Californians. Despite the tax revenue benefits associated with significant increased growth, Colorado Springs has found itself in one of the worst financial situations in the country. When Erie County Chris Collins wishes to not raise taxes, he cuts a couple hundred grand to local theaters. In Colorado Springs, the city parks budget is cut from $20 million to $3 million. And that is just the start.

Community centers and museums were shuttered and youth programs canceled. Firefighter and police positions were eliminated. The two police helicopters were auctioned for $158,000 each. One of every three streetlights was turned off. Bus service was cut for evenings and weekends. All street repaving was canceled. Park restrooms were closed, and city trash cans were replaced by signs asking citizens to take their trash home with them. Community groups and the US Olympic Committee (HQ’d in the Springs) stepped in to privately fund some cut programs. But far from all. In the latest bid, the city is looking to sell its healthcare system to an out of town company. Think Strong Memorial buying ECMC.

How can Colorado Springs be in such dire straits? PFM did an analysis that Colorado Springs collects $402 in tax revenue per capita from its residents, far below the national average. Denver collects $1008. In comparison, in Erie County we spend $1100 per capita on Medicaid alone. The tax structures are almost incomparable. Of course, so are the budget woes.  

The upcoming year looks a bit brighter, so the city council is expecting to add back in previously cut programs. First on the list: streetlights.  If Buffalo couldn’t afford its electric bill, we’d consider ourselves a national laughing stock, and for good reason.

The Erie County budget rhetoric will continue. Maria Whyte breathlessly proclaimed that funding to smaller culturals is self-evidently justified because it is an investment in the community. Such black and white logic begs for two rhetorical conclusions: we should cut funding to everything not an investment, and ignore fiscal restraints on other such opportunities. I look forward to Legislator Whyte’s recommended cuts to Medicaid (prolonging the life of the poor is merely a drain on resources – hardly an investment) and a $100 million renewable energy infrastructure plan for the county. It is an investment, after all.

If, on the other hand, you recognize that budgeting requires funding some things you’d rather not, and not investing in everything deserving of public dollars, then be thankful we are arguing over hundreds of thousands for theaters, and not millions for lights and cops.

The News from New Haven

1 Oct

New Haven, Connecticut, metro population a compact 850,000, is an unlikely victim of Buffalo’s growth. A college town, in the oldest sense of the word, New Haven is not just home of Yale, Quinnipiac, and other universities. The universities are the town; downtown New Haven blends into rather than borders Yale, and the main towers of the central business district evoke, at least in a small way, the eighteenth and nineteenth century Yale collegiate architecture – spectacular stone and glass towers, long halls and quadrangles. New Haven’s central green, Protestant churches, rows of brownstones, shops and restaurants, narrow walkable streets, incredible density, and vibrant student life are far closer to Oxford than most of America.

Still, the fading industrial forces that so affect Buffalo echo here as well. Rusting factories and grain elevators along the Quinnipiac River and ocean front. Boarded up churches hard against interstates running through the center of the city. Row upon row of small boxy World War II era homes, neat and tidy, white siding and darker trim, in first ring suburbs between the meager (2 gate!) airport and the city centre.

And now actions in suddenly boogey-manned Buffalo directly affect New Haven, which is home to not just Yale, but also NewAlliance Bank, future acquisition of shopping-spree-mad First Niagara. New Haven is as far from Manhattan (80 miles) as Niagara Falls, New York is from Toronto. The difference in affect and influence is striking, and can’t be explained away by a simple reference to the international border. I am sure when New Haven foresaw interference in its local banking affairs, it looked to the proximate largest city in New York, not the second most.

So when the news broke a month ago, that First Niagara would purchase NewAlliance, snag its newish CBD tower for its New England regional headquarters, and create the 24th largest bank (depending on what measure you use to count) in the United States in the process, the initial reaction of most of New Haven was “Huh? Never heard of it.”

Voter anger is a national phenomenon. In the coffee shops and pizza parlors of New Haven this week, politics was on the lips of many locals I met. And not just the fashionably politically active college students, but working class CTer’s as well. The Senator’s race between liar Blumenthal and WWE Superstar Linda McMahon appears to be a choice of the lesser of two evils, and the mayor of a nearby town, that has a son-in-trouble scandal that would put Byron Brown to shame, has a ten point lead for governor.

And the anger is not reserved for the politicians – the Mayor of New Haven and many citizens are hot their bank is being acquired. The local news paper, the New Haven Register, set up a forum for citizens to vote their displeasure. Most bemoaned the loss of local control, or indicated they would move their money to a more local community bank or credit union. Such comments are typical now, but fail to play out later. First Niagara has an excellent track record of keeping deposits and business at its new branches in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

But other comments ring true here. The Editorial board of the local paper is pushing a money grab, and wants First Niagara’s foundation endowment to the local community bumped up. A powerless plea for cash from rich out of state (or downstate) interests sounds positively Buffalonian. There is similar concern that a new local bank, forced into creation by a local settlement when NewAlliance was formed a couple years ago, would no longer be stood up. It will go ahead, and First Niagara pledges to continue to listen to the local community here. But John DeStefano, the local mayor, is having none of it.

Mayor DeStefano, a politically ambitious and outspoken politician, fought the creation of NewAlliance from the start, when it emerged from the combination of New Haven Savings Bank and two other smaller local institutions in 2004. Then, he said it would forget its roots and would be sold off, for a big cash out for the board of directors and CEO, and at the expense of New Haven. At the time he demanded, and received, concessions (like the start up bank mentioned above). Now he wants more. A prescient politician, or a guy just looking for a handout? The citizens of New Haven can’t agree either, but many of them did see this eventually coming. The citizens of Lockport can surely sympathize, while in Buffalo the mayor and local officials are happy to ride the good times wave. As so few of them come by, I don’t blame them.

The New Haven Register’s comment forum contains many dismissive, frustrated and negative remarks, as one would expect. But note the following positive comment, from “E”:

First Niagara bought out a local bank in my area (philly). They have done nothing that would hurt the community. I have since bought stock in their company after doing biz with them. They don’t operate out of a central area..they have regional headqtrs and let the regional leaders of the bank make most decisions for the bank. A larger bank with more resources would only help the area.

Will Buffalo be so generous when First Niagara, shooting to the moon, is inevitably bought itself? Or will we wish First Niagara had put down stronger roots, with more backoffice functions moved back to Buffalo (read: more jobs poached from Penn and NE) while they could, and didn’t put so many resources in its new territory. A quick eyeball test says the new New England regional HQ of First Niagara is much bigger (and at least shinier) than First Niagara’s space in the Larkin Building. Will First Niagara build its own shiny new tower downtown before it burns out? Or is the Larkin set to be the Upstate New York HQ of TD in the near future? Because not to be conspiratorial, but has anyone else noticed the number of new TD ads (and manned kiosk) in the Buffalo airport?

Summer’s End

7 Sep

On this most wondrous day of the year, that being the first day of school, it is appropriate to reflect on the summer that was.

I could reflect on the summer of bad news, disappointments, and let downs. That would be typical of the tone of so much of our collective discussions these days, and not inappropriate. But instead, I’m going stay positive, and note a wonderful bit of Buffalo culture, one that I missed while I lived away.

Buffalo takes the summer off.

Instead of noting how bad the news was this summer, how about noting that there was news at all? I mean, who’s even around in the summer to produce or consume that news? I’m surprised the Common Council and Mayor even showed their faces. Chris Collins appeared in today’s paper, but I haven’t heard from him in weeks. That’s the norm, not the exception.

When you are a child growing up in Western New York, or really any temperate-climate community with a traditional academic year, the weather and school tick in a regular cycle. Cold weather means homework, but the sun and breeze mean soccer games, family vacations, and swimming. I, for one, was under the mistaken impression that this would end as an adult. And if I still lived in Las Vegas or Florida, I would be right. Cities with year round schooling, oppressive summers, or (at least) little variation in climate have a more regular tempo in their culture. It doesn’t slow, and it doesn’t speed up – it just continues, no matter what it says on the calendar. Summer is just July; just another name for just another month. Kids still go to school, parents still go to work, and the air conditioner still runs. At best, summer is a quick break at the Fourth of July. At worst, it is something to be endured – Las Vegas’ NPR station runs a series on surviving a Nevada summer.

But in Buffalo, between Memorial day and Labor Day, the whole city relaxes. It is acceptable to let the work slide a bit, ditch a little early for a round of golf, or show up a little late in the morning because you partied too long at a free concert (if only the beer was free) the night before. It’s a relatively unspoken perk of the Buffalo culture, and it is no great strain to understand why. With so many days where the chill “forces” you indoors, there is an “enjoy it while you can” mentality. We pack in all our festivals, vacations, summer sports leagues, and events into a brief 12 week period. I just kicked my son outside because he asked to play video games on a sunny day. My mother did the same to me, with the same order: “Out you go – you’ll wish it was this warm in January.”

True, not everyone enjoys this extended lax holiday. Businesses slow down and pay their bills a bit later. Worker productivity slips, and plans and programs stall. And if you are in the tourist business, you may not have had a day off yet all summer. But for most of us, the tempo of life slowed while the quality increased. And I don’t worry about Scrooge getting his time back: Cratchit shows up all the earlier the next morning to make up the difference.

So I hope you enjoyed it while you could. Now it’s time for us adults to get back to work too.

High and Dry

16 Jul

A recent trip of mine to Colorado Springs reinforced once again how dysfunctional New York State is . . . and by this I mean the whiny citizens and over-stimulated special interests, not the politicians.

Colorado Springs is one of those places that is now bigger than Buffalo, in the new America where sprawltopian suburban growth is only outpaced by ever expanding city boundaries. Now the #46 city in the US (Buffalo being #70, when only counting within the limit), Colorado Springs has gotten fat on a steady diet of two seemingly limitless resources: federal jobs and displaced Californians.

As I have pointed out in other posts about booming southwestern cities, the free, libertarian states of the dry west don’t mind growing on the back of federal dollars and jobs. Already outsized benefactors of federal dollars (in the form of large infrastructure projects out of proportion for the population), they also have been the big winners of the Defense Department’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. Colorado Springs is home to Fort Carson, NORAD, Peterson and Schriever Air Force Bases, and the new NORTHCOM. I have been to Fort Carson five times in the last three years, and each time I barely recognize the place, such is the pace of construction. As an illustration, in one small valley of the base, approximately $1 billion of new barracks, administration buildings, and maintenance bays have been built for the new beddown of one of the Army’s new Stryker units. And that is just one small are of one post. Now multiply by the other military posts in the region, and the effort to stand up a brand new agency and unit from scratch (DHS and NORTHCOM). And each dollar of federal spending brings construction contractors, large military and information contractors like GD, Boeing and Oracle, and all the hotels and restaurants to go with them. With all due respect to Representative Slaughter and the good men and women who work there, the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, with its $10 million of construction a year, is not the “jewel” of the Air Force. Places like Colorado Springs show what real federal dollars can do.

The other key to the growth of Colorado Springs is displaced and disillusioned Californians, with fat wallets from sales of their overpriced homes back in Orange County. It is not possible to overemphasize the effect white migration from California is having on the West Coast and southwest. Not only is California growing browner and poorer, ever unable to meet its basic financial obligations, but communities outside of the state have been forever changed by swelling so fast with disposable income. While that may sound like a good problem to have, ask those in Seattle and Portland (inundated with ex-Californians in the 1990’s) and Colorado and Texas (full of ex-Californians now) whether it has been a net benefit or not.

The influx of housing money and federal jobs has created an endless suburb on the prairie at the base of the Rockies, and the governmental and tax infrastructure can’t keep up. Which is where dysfunctional New York comes in. Our budget is still not completed, over 100 days late. The special interests, unions, and paid off politicians use Armageddon-like language to describe keeping spending flat, much less cutting the budget in any serious way.

Contrast that to Colorado Springs, which, to use but one small example, cut its park budget from $20 million to $3 million. No, not a $3 million cut. A $17 million cut. The city has identified several high profile parks to maintain, and the remaining 135 will be left to the care of 10 employees who will do what they can. In Buffalo it takes more than 10 employees to supervise an hour of parks work, much less get anything done. And the New York State legislature had a collective fit over $6 million in cuts to the entire state’s park budget.

There are two ways to look at this plan, contrasting it with Buffalo’s and New York’s budget situation. Either Colorado and Colorado Springs is completely out of touch with their role as government, and need to raise taxes or prioritize spending to provide services for their citizens (a la New York). Or . . . in the Great Recession, and faced with a huge budget gap, drastically cutting spending in parks is completely appropriate, and keeping taxes low will drive growth that will make the state prosperous in the future (a la Colorado, and much of the south and west). Do we have a simple liberal/conservative divide? Or a Present-Hedonism/Future Optimism issue here as well? As the jobs come back, and the economy improves (Reset or not), I think we’ll soon see.

(Author’s Note on the Grass is Not Always Greener Series: Noting that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, consider myself flattered. You’re welcome, STEEL).

When Analogies Fail

19 Jun

I make it a point when I travel to retain my Buffalonian mind and keep an eye out for stories, ideas or news that contrast with current events in my hometown. It helps me understand Buffalo’s often unnoticed strengths, and puts our city’s plight in perspective. I share those observation with you, dear reader, and often we have interesting discussions there after.

This time, however, I’ve been in Hawai’i.

Is there a place within the United States less like Buffalo? A tropical island with nearly unchanging weather – it doesn’t freeze and it never will. Honolulu has roughly the same population as Buffalo, but is shoe-horned into an area several times smaller. No one has a yard but everyone has a lanai, so the outdoors are at your fingertips. The city is packed with pedestrians at all hour of the day and night, with old and young, and of such a conglomeration of races and ethnicities that everyone looks like Tiger Woods. The Japanese own half the island, and are more than half the tourists, making the city feel like a foreign country at times. In Honolulu it is acceptable to go anywhere barefoot and in a bikini/swimtrunks, but its not okay to jaywalk. Surfboards perch on heads, pot smoke floats through the air, and no one has a care in the world despite the high price (literally and figuratively) of a modern consumer lifestyle so far from production centers. A quarter gallon of milk at a ubiquitous ABC store in Waikiki cost me $3.50 . . . and was from Dallas.

Buffalo’s pace of development is on Island Time, not that many in Buffalo would know to call it that. That’s the best I can do. Sorry.

Aloha.