Tag Archives: Grass Is Not Greener

Highways and Byways

18 Feb

In the last week there has been some debate, none of it new, on the chicken and the egg, and the relative importance to each. In this case, the chickens are large highways, and the egg is the perpetually under-developed downtown Buffalo. Is Buffalo under-developed because large highways are in the way? Do the highways need to be removed for Buffalo to prosper? How important are the stupid highways in the grand scheme of things?

I love new shiny objects. Especially when they are over 10 stories and cost $100M or more. But let me make the layman’s common sense case for new shine being neither here nor there.

Which is more important: having great infrastructure, or how you use what you have? If you answered the second, why do we always seem to argue about the first? Alan comes down squarely in the “play the hand you’re dealt” camp. A comment discussion between myself and STEEL yielded the admission that highways may not be the most important thing, but they are not an asset.

Since Buffalo doesn’t have $5B or $10B to start over, I think how we use what we’ve got is more important than arguing about what we wish would happen, or would have happened. “But hold on,” the infrastructure first crowd chants. “We just trying to better use the money we do spend. Like not spending $50M on reinforcing Route 5 and the Skyway.” If only the Southtown Connector was the only project on the docket. Its hard to talk about one highway project without hearing a chorus of “Tear down the Skyway! Tear out the I-190! Pull up the 198!” If you’re not careful, that starts to turn into real money . . .

Even the most cursory review shows that both flourishing and floundering cities have all manner of infrastructure. For every Vancouver touted for explosive growth with no highways in the urban core (though plenty of gridlock), there is Chicago, Milwaukee, Toronto, Portland and Seattle that are riddled with expressways. Few would say highways are the main feature holding back Detroit. And does Pittsburgh‘s resurgence have more to do with renewed medical and education industries, or reclaiming a little parkland where three rivers come together? Portland has a Skyway interchange hanging over the Willammette river. Know what’s surrounding it? Filled to the brim bike paths. STEEL challenged me that I didn’t spend a lot of time under Portland’s highways. Actually, my favorite place in Portland is under a highway:

Which makes my point completely. What Buffalo is missing is attitude. Our highways, empty grain elevators, rusting factories, abandoned warehouses, urban prairie, and old housing stock – all seemingly negatives – can be assets with the right attitude. Warehouse to loft conversions, PUSH, Buffalo Reuse and the Wilson Street Farm are a couple examples of new attitude. That those four, and few others, sprung to mind so quickly perhaps shows how far we have to go.

I spent the last couple weeks in Yakima, Washington. Yakima is to Seattle as Jamestown is to Buffalo. Yakima has many shiny new buildings in one small strip of downtown.

Two blocks off downtown is another story.  

While many complain that poor Buffalo is surrounded by rich suburbs, much of small town America shows that rich suburbs are better than no suburbs. At least Buffalo, theoretically, has a financial cushion of the county to fall back on. What if poor Buffalo sat alone? Welcome to Yakima, and similar poor, hollowed out metros, lonely and isolated. Yakima’s alternative music school is closing, but it has shiny new infrastructure. How much do brick-accented sidewalks matter?

Form Follows Function. The bike and walking culture of Portland was not created because a forward looking city council created bike paths everywhere, and the average citizen one day decided “You know, there’s a bike path out my front door – maybe I should try it.” The culture came first, and demanded bike paths and pedestrian friendly light rail. The politicians followed, and built it.

Where does this meandering column lead? To this conclusion: The Buffalo we have is the Buffalo we deserve, because it is the Buffalo we chose. The union bound, small minded politicians we have accurately reflect and represent our interests. The infrastructure we have is the infrastructure we chose based upon our priorities: cars and industry. We replaced factories with call centers and back office paper shuffling. When there is a new initiative for the city, we spend more time planning for its failure than helping it succeed. We are not Portland because we do not wish to be. The problem is attitude.

If you are troubled by this, you have three choices: accept it, leave, or try to change it. While seemingly superficial advancements and events, like the giant ice maze, are greeted with jeers, I respect them. They attack the root problem: attitude. If Buffalo became a more creative, fun, progressive (for progress, not liberal) place, then perhaps our form would follow that function instead.

Portland: Green Grass

11 Feb

I travel a lot for work, and on this blog I’ve run a series of stories on places around the country where the grass is not greener. It is my belief that most Buffalonians have no idea how good they have it, mostly because our city tends to be isolated, insulated, and a complaining echo chamber. Everyone has a cousin in North Carolina, but has never been to visit them. So whether its employment in the southwest or a lack of services in the south east, I try to report the less than good news, to prove 1) Buffalo’s problems are not unique, so get over yourself, and b) things could be a lot worse.

I can not, in good conscience, do that for Portland, Oregon. I may not be an impartial juror, having spent many happy summers there as a child, but if you love cities, Richard Florida poster-child Portland is an urban playground.

When you walk (yes, walk, everywhere) around such an obviously successful metro, the thinking Buffalonian’s first question should be how to replicate some of that mojo. I’ll skip the large and impractical contrasts (we’re not going to build three new light rail lines or five new bridges with bike lanes any time soon), and focus on two items where we should have some WIN.

1) Why does our convention center/hotel/mall/sports complex downtown FAIL, while Portland’s is booming? I am not an urban planner or architect, and don’t claim to be. But even I can tell that if a similar complex of such facilities is full of people at all hours in one city, and desolate in another, something is wrong.

Portland’s Lloyd Center complex consists of a huge mall and parking garages, the convention center, arena for the Trail Blazers, hotels and MAX, the light rail line. Lloyd Center is across the river from the central business district, but is most definitely “downtown.” And yet it is constantly full of suburbanites who happily travel the Banfield (think Kensington) in for the pleasure of shopping there. The major infrastructure elements seem to be similar, except major retail fled Main Place Mall and Lloyd Center gets bigger every time I go. And before some light rail advocate hops in here, don’t be confused. Lloyd Center is FULL of cars and parking. Surface lots. Massive ugly parking garages. It is walkable, but far from ideal. That doesn’t seem to matter. It makes one wonder how much community culture matters, as opposed to infrastructure. Of course, no politician gets re-elected telling their constituents they need to think differently. But that’s another story.

2) Why are Portland’s historic building reuses so fun and successful, and ours are cookie cutter lofts and coffee shops with massive government incentives? This is an area where we should be leading the country, with our over supply of funky, bricky, historicy buildings around every corner at fire sale prices. But Portland leaves us in the dust for creative reuse: may I present McMenamins.

The McMenamins empire is pervasive Portland lifestyle that started with two Deadhead brothers in the ’60’s. What started with one historic building turned into a fun pub has exploded in thirty three (33!!) properties of all sizes, types and personalities in Portland alone, and another 22 in surrounding Oregon and Seattle. The basic philosophy: take an old historic property and turn it into something fun. That fun is usually irreverent, whimsical, and unexpected. Some properties end up as restaurants. Some as hotels. Some as theaters, or wineries, or breweries (McMenamins has its own line of micro-brews served at all properties, and brewed locally at about 1/3). Some are all five.

Take, for example, the Kennedy School. Built in 1915, the Kennedy School sits in a quiet north west Portland neighborhood a la North Buffalo. When the school closed, McMenamins turned it into an adult fun complex. 35 classrooms became hotel rooms, and kept the chalk boards. The school auditorium became a movie theater, where dinner is served, if you’d like. The cafeteria is a banquet hall, and was hosting a wedding when I visisted last Satrday night. There are two full restaurants, five bars, and plenty of places to hang out and chat. They added a porch for relaxing in the summer, and a hot tub (full of random partiers) outside off a bar. When you grab your beer, you can wander around the school, on the original hardwood, and look at originals pictures of the students left by the school. The fact that you feel like you are doing something “wrong” by drinking in school only adds to the experience. And of course they added the bars in obvious fun places: the principles office, detention, and my favorite: the boiler room, with the original two story boiler left in place.

This unique experience is repeated throughout Portland, where multiple McMenamins sometimes are within blocks of each other. That doesn’t seem to keep them from being perpetually full, and printing money. I’m glad Buffalo has a smattering of developers (Rocco, Silvestri, Paladino, Frizlen) willing to take on rehabs. But we seem to be stuck in an apartments-only rut. Where is the creativity?

The Dry Rot Belt

1 Feb

I lived in the Southwest for several years. I still have friends and a house in Nevada, and lots of family in Arizona. I wish none of them any hardship, and certainly don’t need the value of my house in Las Vegas to go down anymore (anyone want to buy a house at 2006 prices?).

But I am not above a little Schadenfreude if the Southwest is suffering after years of unsustainable boom, subsidized with outsized federal monies and population from the Northeast.

At a time when fewer people are leaving New York (maybe we won’t lose two Congressional seats after all), and Buffalo is ranked above average economically and leading the nation in housing indicators, there is plenty of evidence the Southwest is entering a prolonged bust cycle.

Call it the Dry Rot Belt.

Arizona has lost more jobs (7.5%), as a percentage of total employment, than anywhere else in the country. With employment not expected to reach its previous peak until 2014, Arizona is looking down the barrel of a lost decade. Add in 80,000 empty houses in Phoenix (Buffalo, famously bad, has 15,000), and a forecast that the housing market won’t recover for another five years, and things look grim. So grim that there is evidence, for the first time in modern history, that Phoenix is currently losing population.

Things are even worse in Nevada. The jobless rate there is 13%, and surges to 25% when counting the part timers and discouraged. The construction industry has cut 72,000 jobs; the casino industry 44,000, despite City Center opening at the end of 2009. The size of the problems in Nevada are astounding from a percentage basis, if not in absolute terms. The state government is attempting to plug a $900 million shortfall in tax revenue – that may sound small when compared to New York, but Nevada’s state budget is only $5 billion. At 20% of the budget, it’s the equivalent of New York attempting to plug a $27 billion hole. Nevada is also forecasting a drop in population of 100,000 people over the next five years. Upstate New York has lost an estimated 400,000 people over the last forty years. 100,000 lost, out of only 2.7 million, over five years, is an even more precipitous decline.

Hordes of Northeasterners and Midwesterners flocked to the Southwest in search of sun and jobs. I guess if the jobs leave, the sun is not a sufficient draw.

Our 70%: Part II

20 Jul

A couple days ago, I wrote a piece on the cost of our local government, and what we get for the premium we pay. My basic premise was this: in New York State, we pay 70% more for state and local government than the average American. For a family earning $100,000 a year, that works out to an extra $3000 above the average. So, what are we getting for our extra three grand? I laid out a number of unscientific anecdotes from my time living in Las Vegas, to show what lower taxes can provide (or not provide, as the case may be).

This article elicited a number of thoughtful comments, which I always appreciate. So let me address them here.

Derek Punaro takes umbrage with the fact that I ignore all the waste our excess taxes engender. After pointing out that we don’t have control over which services we get, and that they are merely sold to us as an overpriced bundle, he notes:

So, the answer to your question is “no” – we’re not getting $3000 worth of more services. We’re getting $3000 worth of embezzlement, kickbacks, duplication of services, and rich politicians.

I asked a question. I got an answer. Starbuck, on the other hand, does some research and discovers that while NY is the #2 state per capita for state and local taxes, Nevada is #49. So what about the states in the middle?

I wonder how our much higher priced govt services compare to states in the middle of that ranking or even to some below the middle. I doubt the cost difference is much to do with our number of politicians either, but more to do with entitlement spending and many different extra costs that trace back to very strong union power here.

Another reasonable point. So, let me expand my thoughts a little more. I may have gotten bogged down on the Vegas inadequacies. Let’s spend more time on Buffalo.

1) I said in the very beginning of the post that for once I was going to ignore all the waste in New York. I don’t normally, but this time I made an exception to prove a point. If you focus on the waste, you see the waste. If you focus on the services and quality of life, you see that. No one wants the waste, but every human system is inefficient, and produces some waste. New York produces more than average. Way more than average. But for my 500 word article, I chose to put that aside.

2) I think we need to keep the personal cost in perspective. In the grand scheme of things, $3000 extra for a $100,000 earner is not nearly as bad as I thought it was. Total average taxes and fees for a $100,000 earner in New York is $7300; average for the entire US is $4300. New York spends an unbelievable amount of money: $131 billion a year, last I checked. At one point, the budget gap for NY ($17 billion) was nearly the entire state budget for Nevada ($25 billion). Collectively, we spend gobs of money. But individually, NY is wasting 3% of your income, if you want to think of it that way. Is 3% worth the collective angst, terrible national reputation, and constant complaining? Before you jump on me, answer this question: imagine all local and state taxes were equalized across the board. Everyone in America paid $4300 in local taxes. You are offered two jobs: a $55K marketing job in Charlotte or a $52K marketing job in Buffalo. Is the $3000 the deciding factor? I could spend that $3000 better than the government (new kayaks), but keep it in perspective.

3) My own opinion, and this is pure gut, is that out of my $3000, about $2500 is wasted, and $500 is spent on actual useful things I appreciate. Those things are better libraries, funding to arts and culturals, improved infrastructure, and the like. Maintaining sewers in NY is much more expensive than Vegas because NY’s are 100 years old. It just costs a lot to keep our developed infrastructure functioning, and that’s even if we fix the waste. That $2500, by the way, is not truly “waste.” We don’t light it on fire. Think of it as it really is: wealth redistribution. Money is taken out of the tax payer’s pocket that is used to fund gold plated pensions for state retirees and politicians, fund consultants and lawyers in Albany, and in unreasonable salaries to the huge union workforce. That wealth redistribution creates huge constituencies, thus the inertia to change.

4) My last point I implied, but did not explicitly state, and relates back to Starbuck. There is no Weberian Utopia in this country that has figured out how to have low taxes and high services. You can point to individual regional success stories, and we should certainly try to improve (there is plenty of room), but higher taxes tend to imply more services, and lower taxes provide fewer. Some people want lower taxes and lower services. That’s fine. I usually fall in that category, and enjoyed some of that Out West. Some people want high taxes and high services. Those are often the poor who aren’t paying taxes anyway, and rich coastal liberal elites, who have money and guilt to spare. But it turns out, I like good schools and art galleries, and that costs more. Realize the balance.

What We Get For Our 70%

16 Jul

Yesterday, a Buffalo News editorial talked about the high cost of government in New York State, that costs us $73 for every $1000 of income. That’s 70% above the average rate of $43 per $1000. I have to admit, I thought the tax rate was actually higher.

So let’s say you are part of an average middle class family in North Buffalo. The husband is an IT guy at UB. The wife is a nurse at Millard Fillmore. You have two kids and a dog. Between the two of you, you bring in $100,000 a year to raise the family. New York gets $7300 of that money, between income taxes, property taxes, fees on your fishing license, and surcharges on your soda. What do you get for your $7300? Or, perhaps the better question is, what do you get for the extra $3000 premium ($7300 minus the US average of $4300) for the opportunity to live in the Great State of New York?

There are all kinds of snarky answers to this question. For once, I’m going to ignore the meltdown in the State Senate, obvious embezzlement of state politicians, kickbacks to local unions, duplication of services, and other giant wastes of money. Yes, much flies out the door with little obvious benefit (having both a Kenmore and Tonawanda police force, anyone?). But for our $3000 premium, we do get some things other places don’t. And they are often things we take for granted in Western New York.

My best frame of reference is Las Vegas, a model of South Western boom, where I lived from 2005 to 2007. Taxes are much lower in Las Vegas. Much much lower. As in, the value of my house in Vegas used to be twice my Grand Island house, but the property taxes were one fourth as much. What do you get for one fourth the taxes? Lots of private business, but not much else.

There aren’t enough cops or jails in Las Vegas, which leads to lots of problems. Not only does violent crime occur throughout the “good” and “bad” suburbs all over the valley, but misdemeanors are ignored, and they considered building a tent jail on the sewer plant to save money. Eventually, they contracted out the building of a new jail, only to decide last month to not open or staff it because they can’t afford to operate it.

Many streets in suburban Las Vegas are two lanes of asphalt and two lanes of dirt – its not economically possible to pave all the required roadways. My son’s public school was more like a holding pen, but private schools (not being subsidized like in NY) were either unavailable or astronomically expensive. Even the Lutherans wanted $5000 a kid for elementary school. Public parks are mostly unavailable, so they are provided by Home Owners Associations (with HOA fees – not technically taxes, but a cost of living most places).

The Arts and Culturals mostly don’t exist, and the Las Vegas Art Museum just shut down. Major issue – no public funding. Priceless quote from the former executive director: “Maybe I missed the readiness of Las Vegas to move in the direction of an urban metropolis.” Ouch.

Life is Las Vegas is much worse for the poor, where Medicaid is nearly broke, low-income children leave the state for care, and clinics regularly turn away patients.

Contrast this in your mind with the general WNY experience, where we are growing healthcare options and accessibility, school scores are improving, we have expanding arts and culturals, and crime has been greatly reduced. I am a proud Republican, but I believe government is not always the problem, and has a positive role to play in society. Is our NY and WNY government worth the extra $3000 premium? You tell me.

Some Buffalo Perspective: Part II

15 Jul

Buffalo

I’d like to make it a regular story on this blog to talk about how 1) Buffalo’s not as bad off as the homegrown China-stole-my-job-and-Charlotte-stole-my-kids pessimists argue, and 2) the grass isn’t greener everywhere else in the country. Think of it as the antithesis of the “Off-Main Street” section of the Buffalo News, which lists the slights, offenses, and opportunities for thinned-skinned whining from the past week. With a job that takes me around the country regularly, I have the ability to see this firsthand. If more Buffalonians got out more (Grandma’s condo in Ft. Lauderdale doesn’t count), they’d see this too.

Today my Buffalo Perspective story comes from a simple tidbit I heard today on Georgia Public Radio. Georgia unemployment for June 2009 is 10.1%. That’s significantly higher than the 8.3% for Buffalo-Niagara Metro area for May 2009 (the latest numbers for Buffalo I could find).  In fact, our unemployment seems to have peaked (famous last words in this economy), and is trending down for the past four months. Contrast that with other metro areas and states, where it is still trending up. Everyone knows Michigan is melting down, with a rate of 13.9% in May, but North Carolina, the promised land, where everyone is rich and “my-neighbor’s-cousin-just-got-a-great-job-after-being-laid-off-from-GM,” the rate is 11.1%. In fact, Buffalo has a lower unemployment rate than 28 states, including previous boom areas like California, Florida, and yes, NC.

Now, how to interpret this. I am not so naive as to think the Great Recession is done with Buffalo, and things can’t get worse. And it may be true that many Buffalonians have stopped looking for work, and thus not counted. But those two forces work around the country, and are not endemic only to Buffalo.

Instead, I would argue, the issue is that not only does Buffalo not have the correct view of its future, but also its present. We spend so much time looking backward, we barely know where we are now. Buffalo is not battered Ohio and Michigan. It is not a land of perpetually shutting factories. We have our share of abandoned hulks and empty houses. But we let that overly define us, like the Third Poorest City label, that does more to explain how the variances in regional governments affect statistics, than the true relative poverty in our metro area.

Buffalo is now a white collar town with a blue collar perception of itself. Using recent statistics from Buffalo Business First (I have the physical paper in front me of, and not the link – imagine that!), Buffalo-Niagara’s White Collar employment is approximately 284,000, with an additional 109,000 in retail, hospitality and leisure. Contrast that to 113,000 in Blue Collar jobs. Yes, Alcor Mittal is closing, smaller manufacturers are hurting, and GM and Ford are slowing. But that is the Buffalo of yesterday, and focusing there is a distraction not only from Yahoo, the Medical Campus, and Healthcare advances, but also new manufacturing opportunities like Globe making solar cells in NF.

The truth of the unemployment numbers is that our actual major industries in Buffalo, the ones that employ the vast majority of our people but don’t receive the bad news headlines, are holding their own. Our hospitals, colleges and universities, medical research centers, banking and insurance headquarters, artists and architects are sturdy. The issue is whether we are positioning ourselves to complete nationally when the economy overall starts to rev up. The jobs will come back – the question is where will they go.

UPDATE: I was a day early on my post, and June’s unemployment number for Buff-Niagara is 8.9%, an uptick of 0.6. While this does stop four months of downtrend that I had mentioned, it is still below other areas of the country whose data is coming out now, and I think my point still holds.

Some Buffalo Perspective

23 Jun

One of my goals when starting this blog was to talk about Buffalo’s view of itself, and how that sets us back. Many cities and places have mythologies. Some, like LA’s, are about opportunity and optimism – deserved or not (its the sunny weather). Others, like Buffalo’s, are suspicious and defeatist. In the Buffalo mythology, China and Mexico stole our jobs, Charlotte stole our children, Toronto will steal our Bills, and Brett Hull stole our Stanley Cup. We look with wistfulness and regret back at what we had, instead of planning what we will be in the future. When a new plan is announced, we plan for its failure instead of contributing to its success.

buffalo-casino

Its been almost two years since I moved back. More on that later. Moving away for 12 years, living in five different states and visiting 49 of them, I came to realize the benefits of Buffalo. Unfortunately, I think Repats often appreciate Buffalo more than many of those who stuck around. I’m sure those that are born and raised in NYC, Chicago, and many other places, know the good thing they have. Buffalo is more of an acquired taste – you need to eat a lot of burritos, Jack-in-the Box, and BBQ to long for a Beef on Weck.

Las Vegas, southern Florida, and Phoenix are brand new places that sprang from nearly nothing. Everything is new and exciting and no one is from there. Everyone I knew in Vegas was from Pittsburgh, Cleveland or Kansas. Contrast that with Buffalo, where few new people move in, lots move out, but the die hards have little frame of reference outside of WNY.

These die hards go to NYC once in a while to see a Yankees game, to Toronto to see Beauty and the Beast, and to Ft Meyers to visit their Grandma. But Charlotte is a magical place full of money and jobs and your sister’s kids. Ditto for San Diego, Denver, Chicago and Portland. Did you hear they have no income tax in Florida? Did you hear they built a new VW plant in Tennessee? My neighbor’s cousin just got a job in DC. Why don’t we have a new VW plant in Buffalo? Why do the taxes go up as fast as the jobs go away?

Legitimate questions, probably. But my point is, in other cities, and other states, people bitch too. Sometimes they bitch about the same things. Sometimes they bitch about different issues, things that Buffalonians take for granted. And sometimes, things are really bad, but the people aren’t organized enough to bitch, and simply give up caring. But the grass is no greener, and I’m here to show you that, one city at a time.

For the last week and a half I’ve been in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Fayetteville is proof that not all of North Carolina is a boom town.

fayetteville

I’m in Fayetteville because I’m doing some business at Fort Bragg. That’s why most people are in Fayetteville – they are stationed here, used to be stationed here and got stuck when they exited the Army, or can’t figured out how to leave. It is called Fayette-Nam by many soldiers, and that is not a term of endearment. I hear gunshots outside of my new build hotel in the “good” part of town. In fact, Fayetteville has a score of 2 out of 100 for safety from crime.

If I told you Fayetteville was a city of 120,000, you might be confused that it is half the size of Buffalo. Silly New Yorker – in the booming South, cities are allowed to annex property. Buffalo may not have changed boundaries in 150 years, but that’s not true everywhere. Which brings me to my Grass-Is-Not-Greener issue. Fayetteville is not half the size of Buffalo, it is one tenth the size. Because it has no suburbs, as it annexed all adjacent communities, farmland, and surrounding areas.

Over-annexation is a major issue down here, as cities can annex neighborhoods, towns, and subdivisions against the wishes of the residents. I am a fan of AG Cuomo’s push to make it easier for government entities in NY to merge. But we certainly don’t want the system run amok down here in North Carolina. There is a reform bill moving its way through the NC State legislature, but it still doesn’t give residents a vote in the manner, and in the meantime, cities scoop up higher tax base areas adjacent to them, with no obligation to provide city services. In fact, some areas annexed by Fayetteville in 2005 are not even scheduled to receive city services (water, sewer, etc) until after 2020.

I am a Regionalist at heart, and we need consolidation in WNY. But beware of how its implemented, and be thankful NY does not allow wonton undemocratic shuffling like this.