Tag Archives: metropolitan government

[From the Vault] Regionalism: Time to Party Like it’s 1999

25 May

photo.JPGI’ve heard it said that Buffalo is where good ideas go to die. I don’t think of it like that.

Buffalo is where good ideas are made to inhale chloroform, dragged around to the back of the abandoned house, and murdered by status-quo driven self-interest.

Buffalo in 2011 (and 2012) is besotted with the same problems, the same issues, the same concerns, and – strikingly – the same debates it had a decade ago.  Save one.

Regionalism.

Regionalism was murdered in 2005 after being debilitated by people who have an interest in maintaining the status quo, and then unintentionally killed by a politically beleaguered Joel Giambra; it was manslaughter.  After all, during the last few years of his 16th floor Rath Building tenancy, Joel Giambra was political poison. If he was for pink bunny rabbits and sun-shiny days, polls would show that 20% of WNYers agreed with him, while 70% hated bunnies and sunshine, and a further 10% didn’t know.

But as wrong as Joel Giambra was about a lot of things, he was right about one – that western New York needed to seriously consider the implementation of regional, metropolitan government. The champion of this idea was Kevin Gaughan.

Gaughan recognized that regionalism – a concept whose entry in the regional socio-economic-political discussion began through a forum held in 1997 at the Chautauqua Institution – was a non-starter due to its support from, and association with the toxic Giambra.  He turned his attention to another crusade – the “Cost“, which studied and determined that we ought to remedy a symptom of too many governments in WNY – i.e., too many politicians and appointees – and begin eliminating villages and downsizing town boards and other legislatures.  That has been met with some success, more failure, and bypasses the disease itself.

Yet those familiar with the internet’s Way Back Machine can still access Gaughan’s arguments for regional metropolitan government.

One of the opinions I’m most known for is the idea that county government ought to be abolished. It was done in 1997 in Massachusetts, which recognized that county government largely adds no value to the work already done by cities, towns, villages, and – most importantly – the state.

We have so many redundant and needless governments in western New York that the regional is factionalized and fragmented.  The Balkanization of western New York helps ensure that there is no unified plan – with a set vision, and a series of distinct goals – for moving a region into a 21st century reality.

We rely on the Sabres and the Bills to keep convincing ourselves that this is a major league city. It isn’t. Our infrastructure planning assumed that the City of Buffalo and Erie County would grow to a population of over 2 million people. It hasn’t; it’s shrunken. People clamor for change, yet moan about its actual implementation. As if by abolishing a village government you abolish the village itself and displace its people.

We are the ultimate hoarders; hoarders of pointless governmental entities that add no value to the civic equation. Why? Could it be as simple as my hypothesis – that there are too many people dependent on the maintenance of the status quo to permit change to be implemented?

It’s time for us, the people of Erie County and western New York, to start talking again about looking forward.  The governmental number and structure of the 50s needs to change, or this region will continue to decline.  The age of industry has given way to the age of knowledge and information.

The city of Toronto, Ontario is a municipal entity comprising over 2 million people. It has a directly elected mayor and a unicameral legislature made up of 44 councilmembers representing a geographical constituency. In 1998, Toronto and six surrounding municipalities joined, making up the amalgamated Metro Toronto. Buffalo also has a changed demographic reality, one that could do with some radical change.  You mean to tell me that 45 elected officials to handle a population of 900,000 isn’t doable? Western New York has 45 separate and distinct governments, comprised of well over 300 elected officials.

This is the first in a series, and it’s my hope that we can re-spark this discussion and come up with ways to implement and design this new reality for western New York. I sincerely think that by making this switch to metropolitan government is the best chance for lurching us out of a 50s growth & infrastructure mentality that has been an anachronism for decades. This is an idea that will be fought tooth & nail by those who benefit from our stagnated status quo, but some of their points will be valid and need to be addressed.  I hope to conclude with an action plan that will enable people to lobby, advocate, agitate, and cajole for this idea.

Downsize? Let’s downsize from 45 to 1.

Sometimes, old forgotten ideas are worth reviving.  Let’s do that.

The foregoing article was first published on March 8, 2011. Unfortunately, it didn’t really become a “series”, and that’s my own fault. Maybe by re-publishing it here, thanks to the archives of my old 2006 – 2011 posts that is now back online, I’ll remind myself further to pursue this line of thought and debate. 

Do You Need Downtown?

30 Dec

As we round out 2011, I would usually post a retrospective of the year’s posts here, but most of my 2011 archives are no longer online. So, instead, I’ll leave you with this thought-provoking post from Rochester journalist Rachel Barnhart.

In it, Barnhart recounts a discussion she had with a friend about Rochester’s urban core and its suburbs. He argued that suburbanites simply have no need for the city proper anymore, as any and all of their daily needs can easily and conveniently be met closer to home. To them, whether the city sinks or swims is irrelevant, and they believe that the suburbs have developed a way of living that is immune to the city’s successes and failures. From Barnhart’s piece, her friend argued,

The suburbs are so great we don’t need to leave. We have everything, they’re the best suburbs in the country.

If you’re my dad, he has no reason to leave Webster. He has fine dining, shopping and Wegmans. You think people are always denigrating the city, but our suburbs are second to none.

You think life would stop in Brighton and Pittsford if downtown died? The city is not the hub for those people. I’m one of them.

I’m not smart enough to have a prescription to fix downtown. It’s sad and it’s a shame, but (the death of downtown) wouldn’t have the impact you think.

We need to focus on the entire area. We have great suburbs and crime is going down. You think I’m so anti-city and I’m not. I just don’t think downtown and the city are as important.

It’s a topic that comes up quite often in Buffalo. When I first started paying attention to local politics, the city was in rough shape and the county was doing great, flush with tobacco settlement money. Before the red/green budget, suburbanites would gleefully announce to, e.g., Sandy Beach that the county should just take over the city. Within a matter of days, the assumptions underlying that position changed 180 degrees. 

I’m a big believer in the notion that the suburbs and the city sink or swim together. Like Toronto, Erie County should have a metropolitan government that fairly represents all the people. We should have a unified school district that strives for excellence, and discourages complacency and failure. The 50s way of governing needs to be replaced with something more effective, and more reflective of current realities.  We need to consolidate our business development, planning/land use, maintenance, and purchasing functions. We need to make it easier for businesses to navigate a much reduced, rationally laid out set of bureaucratic regulations. Nostalgia shouldn’t be our biggest industry – we need to better support and encourage today’s innovators and tomorrow’s moguls.

But turning specifically to the topic in Barnhart’s piece about the declining need for a downtown, there are loads of people throughout WNY who have no use for the city proper unless they have court, Sabres tickets, or the theater. All other services are not only available, but more convenient, closer to home; home predominately being some suburb.

Crowdsourcing

The national trend of hip young people moving into downtowns has touched Buffalo only tangentially; most newer housing is comprised of rentals, which have a  built-in transience. Condos in the downtown core are almost exclusively high-end, going for more than 300k.

I think downtown Buffalo has a lot of problems that are largely self-inflicted through poor planning, little foresight, and weak zoning. A land value tax would go a long way towards rendering land speculation of vacant lots less economically viable, and perhaps grow downtown again. When I visit Rochester, it seems to me as if its downtown is more robust and better maintained than Buffalo’s. But that could be a grass-is-greener thing.

In order to render old, decaying downtowns vital and vibrant again, people need an incentive to go there. I’m an advocate for a sales-tax-free zone for Buffalo’s downtown core. By giving people $.0875 cents off every dollar they spend, you could easily, quickly, and organically spur interest in downtown retail and revitalize an area that people have no reason to visit. With the pending development of Buffalo’s Canal Side (waterfront project through the ESD), this sales-tax-free zone becomes even more acute of an issue. We’re spending millions to create a tourist/shopping/cultural destination, we should ensure that it’s used and that it helps revitalize its surroundings.

It’s not the weather. It’s not the 190 or the Scajaquada or the 33. It’s not the Skyway. These things are not keeping Buffalo’s downtown lame. Through a sales-tax-free downtown, people from throughout the region, and from Canada, will have a huge incentive to demand goods and services within that zone, and private enterprise will swoop in to supply it.

I think we do need downtown, but more importantly, downtown needs us. It needs feet on the ground, and it needs cash in wallets, ready to be spent on something.  We have a real chicken-and-egg scenario here – retailers won’t come downtown because there isn’t any retail downtown. And let’s face it, when we think about a downtown – if you look at the old pictures of Main Street in the 50s, or better still, 100 years ago, it was a teeming mess of people, shops, eateries, offices; things to do, people to see.

It could be that again, given the right environment. It just needs a few nudges in the right direction.

Happy New Year.