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Under Poloncarz, what's next for the arts?


Erie County Executive-elect Mark Poloncarz delivers his victory speech at the Adam's Mark Hotel in Buffalo, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011. Photo by Derek Gee / Buffalo News

County Executive-elect Mark Poloncarz, the county comptroller who won a surprise victory over incumbent Chris Collins in November, is in the midst of setting his agenda for the next four years.

One of the most hotly contested issues in the campaign was funding for cultural organizations and libraries, which Collins substantially slashed from the 2011 and 2012 budgets. And though it's unclear exactly what role that issue played in Poloncarz' victory, it's plain to see that the incoming county executive sees county support for the arts far differently than his predecessor.

During his campaign, Poloncarz pledged to restore funding to organizations that were slashed by Collins. And on Tuesday, the Erie County Legislature helped him deliver on that promise by voting to give $931,841 in the 2012 budget to groups who lost out on funding this year.

This morning, I talked with Poloncarz about his plans concerning arts and culture in Erie County. Our conversation follows after the jump.

When you decided it would be a good idea to try to put that [cultural funding] back into the budget, what exactly played into your thinking? What arguments you heard convinced you that that was the right move to make to try to put that money back into the 2012 budget?

Well, it was a commitment that I had made during the campaign that I believed that arts and cultural institutions were a valuable resource for the community. I knew that there was sufficient funding there to do that, and I said I would do it, and I did.

Even going back to that campaign promise, did you arrive at that commitment because of arguments you had heard from the cultural community or just because of something believed already before this whole funding crisis arose?

It was my own belief.

Thinking back to a year ago, during what was really a crisis for the cultural organizations and libraries, from your perspective then as comptroller, were you impressed with the turnout, the solidarity of the cultural community and the sort of fortitude they showed when they came to the legislature to make their pitches?

I think it was refreshing to see, because I think for the longest time there was an expectation that they were just going to get the funding, that they would go through the ECCRAB [Erie County Cultural Resources Advisory Board] process and it would be there. It was enlightening from a standpoint of the representatives of the organizations to see that there’s an additional process beyond just ECCRAB and that once the county executive, Mr. Collins, stripped that ECCRAB process out, they were required to actually show their force.

It was good for the process. If they had not done that, I’m not so certain that all of the legislators that you saw vote for the funding yesterday would have done that. I certainly believed in the organizations and thought it was important that they play a role. And I think it was also important that they understood that elections matter, votes matter.

For many of them, they approached me beforehand and said they never took any interest whatsoever in county elections or county politics before. Some of them admitted they had never voted for a county executive or a county legislator before, though they were key individuals and some of these organizations were entirely dependent on the county.

So the last two years have been eye-opening for the individuals associated with these organizations on the impact that county government can have on their organizations and the community as a whole.

What’s your sense, if you have a sense, of how much the cultural and library funding issue played into the outcome of the election?

It definitely had a role across Erie County. I don’t know if it was the number one reason, but it definitely had a role. I would talk to people across the county and there was some organization that somebody cared about, whether it was down in the Souther Tier with the Springville Center for the Arts or whether it was the city or the suburbs, or talking about how Shakespeare had been cut. Certainly, it played a role…

I think every election has to have one or two points of, how shall I say, information for the public to grasp the differences between the candidates and my support for the arts and cultural institutions or cultural tourism in general was one way you could see the difference between myself and Mr. Collins. It really showed the public there was a difference between us on these issues, which in the grand scheme of things in county government are not large dollars, but in the grand scheme of our community, are important.

Going back to ECCRAB, are there plans now to reinstitute it or reconstitute it in some way shape or form, and at what stage ,if those efforts exist, what stage are they at?

We are planning on reconstituting an ECCRAB process. Not the former board, but we’re going to look at what worked and what didn’t work with it. My goal is to, within the first six months, have an ECCRAB process in place. I don’t know what we’re going to call it. It might be ECCRAB again, but it’s not going to be the same exact type of board. There were complaints from the arts and cultural community about ECCRAB previously and I certainly want to listen to all parties before we re-form an organization that might have been OK but could have been better.

As the county executive-elect, do you have an overall cultural funding philosophy or a cultural philosophy period, in terms of how the administration wants the arts to play a role in economic development? Do you have sort of an idea of how the arts play a role in the bigger picture of Erie County and how your administration might encourage that?

Well, the number one priority for my administration is going to be job growth and job development, and looking at all aspects of it. I talked in my campaign how we need to focus more on Canada, Canadian businesses that are moving into the United States. We also need to focus on the cultural tourism area to see where, in working better with the CVB on where tourism from -- are the tourists coming from Canada or are they coming from all over the place?

We had the historic preservation conference recently, and that was a great thing, but now we need to take it to the next step, and how do we best do that? For those individuals, many of them came for the architecture, but I think a lot of them were surprised by the other cultural institutions that existed here. How do we best tap into that? It’s going to be a theme of my administration – working with all. You can’t focus on one area alone. You can have all the arts and cultural organizations that we wanted, but we’d still have unemployed individuals, especially blue-collar workers and other areas.

In past administrations, even ones that were friendly to arts and cultural organizations in the county, it wasn’t as if the funding of those organizations was part of some larger regional plan or at least county-wide plan to improve the economy or something like that. It was apart from that.

There’s going to be a number of areas we’ll be focusing on and this is just one of them.

Do you plan to sort of align it with your larger goal?

It’s going to part of it. I can’t say “aligning” it because it’s going to sound like we’re deciding that an entire economic plan is going to be solely focused on arts and culturals.

It’s going to be part of a greater economic plan that we’re going to be working on as we move along. I remind folks, I was just elected. Even though we were able to get some changes in this budget, 95 percent of this budget or more is a Collins budget. So it’s going ot take some time to be able to put my stamp on county government in the direction I want it to go. Part of that is making changes in the budget as it goes along. Part of it is making changes to boards of directors of organizations in which the county executive has been influential… It’s gonna take some time. I’ve got four years to be able to show what I believe to be my vision for the future.

How will that vision differ from Collins’ in the broad strokes? His motto, a lot of people thought it was a pretty good one, Erie County being a place where people want to visit, business want to locate, people want to live in. Is that something you’re going to stick with?

The motto wasn’t bad, but it was the implementation of it where we disagreed with regards to the direction and how Erie County, as a government, should play a role. I think there needs to be greater cooperation between all parties involved. There certainly wasn’t with Mr. Collins. But in the end, we need the public and private sector to work together.

We need individuals to understand that government can’t do it alone. The government plays a role in setting a tone that is the correct tone for the community, but in the end, I need to work with other parties, I’m going to cooperate with other parties, which was truthfully a problem I think with this administration. It was more adversarial than it should have been.

At this point it’s early, but has the input of the cultural community members on your transition team influenced your thoughts on not just cultural funding but cultural policy overall? Is there anything concrete that’s come out of that input yet?

Well the transition team, truthfully, is more involved with reviewing resumes for high-level appointees. I wanted individuals from the arts and cultural community to be part of the transition team, to also get their input especially in areas where it would matter, such as Environment and Planning, where the Environment and Planning office plays a key role with regards to arts and cultural funding as well as the libraries and things like that, the community enrichment area, so to speak.

I felt it was important that we had individuals who not only -– somebody like Lisa Ludwig, who is an active participant and Cindy Abbot Letro, who has been on boards of directors –- to offer a different opinion. I didn’t want just the CEOs and CFOs of business organizations to be on my transition team. Because I wanted a transition team that was representative of the community as a whole. I think that was one of the major differences.

When it comes to recommendations going forward, we are going to be taking those, but this transition team is really going to be focused more on helping me find the right people for these positions.

--Colin Dabkowski


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