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A crippled Detroit, making better cars

   WASHINGTON -- You wouldn't know it based on what the Big Three are telling you, but the quality of American cars is improving.

   In fact, U.S. vehicles top the J.D. Power and Associates 2008 quality ratings in the midsize car, large car, midsize SUV, large pickup and van categories.

   Such facts have not been stressed much in the debate over a $34 billion federal loan rescue for the used-to-be-Big Three. Instead, there's been much more talk about the concessions that the United Auto Workers must make and the corporate jets the auto executives flew to D.C. two weeks ago.

   But think about the following for a minute:

   "If [the American manufacturers] could go two more years without going out of business, they would be very competitive with the foreign manufacturers," said Karl Brauer, editor in chief at Edmunds.com, the auto web site. "But they can't go two more years without help from the government."

   So do comments like that make you rethink this idea of lending the U.S. auto industry $34 billion in taxpayer funds?

  -- Jerry Zremski

An ironic twist for debt collectors

  Buffalo is a center for debt collection companies, something that was supposed to work in its favor.

   The area has been called a good place to ride out the economic downturn, partly because of its many collection firms.

   It's true that maxed-out consumers have more debts than ever, but debt collectors aren't seeing good times.

   One Amherst-based company has filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and other firms in the region say they're also feeling a squeeze.

   The reason is that the repayment rate of older debts is slowing down sharply. Households are forced to put off repayment as they face more pressing problems meeting their current bills.

   There may not be much sympathy for collectors … no one's talking about a bailout for this industry. But the debt collector's woes are an indication of the depth of the economic downturn.

   --- Fred O. Williams

American Axle deal may force closing of Tonawanda plant

The  American Axle & Manufacturing plant in the Town of Tonawanda could
close under a proposed contract settlement, according to published reports.

The deal also reportedly calls for closing a Detroit plant, offering buyouts and
cutting wages.

Neither the company nor the UAW is talking about the plan, since talks are
continuing. But the proposal, reported first in the Detroit Free Press, highlights
the challenges the region's American Axle hourly workers are facing. Not only
are the workers facing a proposal to cut their wages, but one of the
local plants might go away, as well. It would be the latest blow to the region's
manufacturing base.

Nothing is certain until the two sides reach a settlement, and then workers will
have a chance to vote on whatever tentative deal is brought before them. At that
point, the potential buyout and buy-down offers that would come with such a deal
could help decide the outcome.

-- Matt Glynn

A cautionary tale about hiring a home builder

   Ellen Tucker, executive director of the Better Business Bureau serving upstate, says people spend more time test-driving new cars than they typically spend checking out a home contractor or home builder with whom they might spend tens of thousands of dollars.

   And it's a tough business with lots of good, and lots of bad, contractors, she says.

   Others familiar with the industry say home owners must be careful not to extend money before the work is done. Let the contractor do the work, then pay him or her.

   Today's story is a cautionary tale. Home builder Steven Wisniewski was able to get lots of money from his victims before doing the work. And the story also shows that county and state prosecutors are not standing by waiting to pounce on dishonest contractors.

   Anthony Adamo and Brian Pacillo thought they did the right thing. They blew the whistle on Wisniewski to protect others.

   Then, nothing happened.

   What are your thoughts about the situation we described?

   --Matthew Spina

Last-minute shopping can be fun, or torture

   It's fun, right? Last-minute Christmas shopping, we mean.

   All the crowds. All the bargains. All that Christmas spirit.

   No? Bah, humbug you say!

   It's torture? Spending all your hard-earned money to buy presents for people you hardly know who will likely be regifting whatever you buy them anyway. No wonder you waited until the last minute!

   What do you think? Last-minute fun or last minute misery?

American automakers are fighting for their lives

   Once they were called the Big Three. Now they're just the Detroit Three, and they're in trouble.

   Ford, Chrysler and General Motors are losing money on their North American auto business -- the business that built their fortunes while it helped to build metal-bending regions like Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo.

   As a result, the United Auto Workers granted historic concessions in contracts they signed with U.S. automakers this fall. A new entry-level wage tier of about $14 was created for new hires, a wage last seen in union auto plants in the 1980s.

   And health care coverage for retirees will come from newly created trust funds, managed by the UAW. The funds cap the automakers' liability for the open-ended expense, and puts the union in charge of keeping coverage affordable.

  The deals give union critics plenty of ammunition. They say that some health care trusts have gone bust, leaving retirees in the lurch. And that management, not labor, is to blame for Detroit's uncompetitive products.

   But rank-and-file workers approved the deals, and by wide margins at Ford and GM. As current employees, they won't have to worry about retiree health care for a while, and they aren't in danger of having their own pay cut to $14 an hour.

   Still, it isn't clear that the cost rollback will be enough to turn things around. The economy is wobbling toward a possible recession, and oil prices keep setting record highs. Will the Detroit Three be back looking for more cuts in 2011? Or will they be down to two?

— Fred O. Williams

Let's hear your plans for holiday shopping

   With the Thanksgiving weekend fast-approaching, the time has come to down plates of turkey and get serious about holiday shopping.

   National retail forecasts indicate the economic pressures of higher fuel prices and mortgage market troubles will put a damper on gift buying. But locally, shoppers are saying they won't let economic malaise get in the way of their present purchases.

   What drives your holiday shopping plan? Do you follow a budget or let the holiday spirit be your guide?  Will you hit the stores on Black Friday, or sit it out at home with online shopping?

A plea for Ralph Wilson to leave the Bills to his wife

   Today's column urges Bills owner Ralph Wilson, 89, to reconsider his decision not to leave the team to his wife, Mary, upon his passing. Read my column here.

   Leaving the team to his wife ensures that the Bills stay in Buffalo for the foreseeable future. She would not … unlike if Wilson left the team to his daughters … have to pay an estate tax bill of some $270 million, which would necessitate selling the team in order to get the money to pay the bill.

   Wilson recently said that the team would be sold upon his passing. There is talk of a local ownership group bidding for the team. But odds are slim that a local entity could financially compete with prospective owners from more prosperous parts of the country. With Los Angeles and other large markets lacking an NFL team, odds are that the Bills would leave Buffalo if the team was put on the open market.

   Buffalo has backed the team during its 47 years with its fan loyalty, game attendance and taxpayer subsidies of more than $125 million. Western New York has been the team's extended family. I think we have the right to at least ask Ralph Wilson to reconsider a decision which would likely cause the Bills to leave Buffalo after his passing. Agree or disagree?

--Donn Esmonde

Airport improvements paying big dividends for travelers

The Buffalo Niagara International Airport is celebrating its 10th birthday this weekend. Looking back over the past decade of airport milestones, in addition to getting an impressive new terminal building, we've also seen the arrival of low-cost airline superstars Southwest and JetBlue, air fares that are among the lowest in the U.S., and a 75 percent increase in passengers using the airport.

   Nearly $300 million has been invested in the airport, its runways and parking lots since 1997, with another $50 million about to go into passenger and baggage screening improvements, and parking expansion. Read the story here.

  The airport overhaul is considered a success by those who planned it and those who use it, but what tweaks could be made to drive future growth?

Giambra backs Bills playing in Toronto

       County Executive Joel A. Giambra today signed a document giving the Bills permission to play in Toronto. The state is likely to grant permission as well.

   So the Bills proposal for games in Toronto is becoming more clear. The team wants permission to play a preseason and regular season game in Toronto annually, starting in 2008 and running through the rest of its Ralph Wilson Stadium lease agreement, which ends July 30,
2013.

   Privately with public officials, the Bills tout their move as a way to regionalize their fan base, sell more luxury suites and perhaps meet the looming NFL expectation that each team play a game internationally in coming years.

   However, the NFL owners, who will discuss the Bills idea in Philadelphia on Tuesday, will consider it independently of the strategy to popularize the NFL in other countries, a league spokesman said.

  Has the gong of doom sounded to mark the Bills departure from Western New York?

   The Bills still aren't saying much about the games just yet.

   But to insiders, the Bills' motives are pure. They simply want to draw more Canadians to keep the franchise in Orchard Park, not to pave the way for a pullout.

   Read Jerry Sullivan's take here, and vote on what you think the effect will be.

   In theory, the team will be stronger financially if more Canadian companies come and buy luxury suites.

   Where are you Tim Hortons?

   What do you think this means? Are the Bills staying here, or looking for greener and less rusty gridirons?

   And if your name is Ralph Wilson, please feel free to write as much as you want.

   --Matt Spina

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