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Obama, Take 2

How can Western New York parlay an Obama presidency into progress?

I posed that question to a number of people I've dealt with over the years and I got back two overriding themes.

Obama "gets" cities and thus we can expect a more enlightened approach to urban issues. And we've got urban issues.

We've also got a lot of green potential, and Obama also gets green.

So, we've got some things to work with. Not that we've gotten off on the right foot.

Over the weekend, Erie County Executive Chris Collins and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown held a press conference to unveil their respective county and city "stimulus package proposals." Really just a couple of wish lists of public works projects they'd like Washington to fund. Stuff including new docks at Erie Basin Marina, air conditioning for City Hall and numerous road repairs.

Collins and Brown couldn't even be bothered merging and prioritizing their lists, much less sitting down with the folks in Niagara County to develop a regionwide strategic plan.

Nope, it's everyman for himself.

This is what passes for leadership in this town.

Here's a flavor of what some of the folks who responded to my e-mail had to say, edited lightly for brevity and clarity:

Mike Clarke, executive director of the Buffalo office of the Local Initiatives Services Corp., a non-profit that underwrites local housing and community projects.

Obama, as our first urban president in many years, brings an understanding of the needs and importance of vital cities to regions that can't be understated.

He knows that cities are places that can spawn innovation and interaction among closely aligned institutions like universities and medical centers. That they more efficiently serve more people at less public infrastructure and maintenance expense than sprawling suburbs. That they still contain the industrial infrastructure that built this country and that those spaces can be redeployed to create the engines of production for green technology by retrofitting them for wind and solar manufacturing. That they are the hubs for new modes of transportation through the development of high-speed rail. 

He also has two very city-oriented appointees on his team. Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarret has been involved professionally in housing and finance in Chicago. Incoming HUD Secretary, Sean Donovan, is an extremely intelligent guy and provides Obama with another uniquely qualified person who comes with a deep understanding of the needs of cities.

Henry L. Taylor, director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo.

"Urban policy is going to be a significant component of Obamaism, and this bodes well. This will probably be reflected in the reinvention of HUD, greater collaboration among federal agencies and a transformation in federal – city relations.

This is good news for cities like Buffalo, but for the city to take advantage of the situation, I think we have to identify the top developmental priorities and formulate a strategy to link economic development to the regeneration of distressed communities.  Within this context, there are three areas of great promise.

1. Brownfield development and green industries—the numerous brownfields in the Buffalo-Niagara region could become green gold.  Many brownfields are located near or adjacent to distressed communities.  This creates a wonderful opportunity to link brownfield regeneration to community redevelopment.  Within this context, the Buffalo region is already carving out a niche in green industries. The key is to create a regional brownfield strategy that leads to synergistic development, rather than competition.  On this point, infrastructure initiatives ought to be tied to brownfield regeneration and bolstering the competitive edge of the city.

2.The Buffalo-Niagara region has a strong focus on knowledge-intensive industries, especially medical institutions and universities. This creates two interrelated opportunities for the regions. First, strategies, similar to UB’s 20/20 program, should be encouraged among the Meds and Eds to stimulate the development of quality, stable jobs and opportunities. Second, we must find creative ways to use the total institutions – Meds and Eds – from their purchasing power to intellectual prowess to work toward attacking the problem of distressed neighborhoods. The problem of urban distress is the most urgent problem facing the City and Meds and Eds can play a significant role in solving it.

3. The city needs to develop new and innovative approaches to battling neighborhood distress. The Obama administration will be looking to support innovative distressed neighborhood programs, such as the Harlem Project with its comprehensive approach to revitalization. "

Walter Simpson, co-founder of the Western New York Climate Action Coalition.

My hope is the Obama will focus so clearly and forcefully on climate change that Mayor Brown and other community leaders in local government, business, education, etc. will get off their duffs, develop climate actions plans and start addressing this problem.

I did not see the beginning of the green economy in the local project lists developed by the city and county.

Phil Wilcox, community affairs specialist with Local 97 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Last month, Empire State Development Chair Robert Wilmers reiterated a decades old challenge – we have few if any shovel ready sites in WNY available for development.  The main challenge is our industrial legacy leaving behind brownfields.The environmentally compromised sites have otherwise very valuable infrastructure: rail, truck routes, industrial sewers, and most importantly – electric transmission lines.  Liability scares off almost all developers.

Any green energy of other industrial development must have a site to locate with these transmission lines nearby – or spend in excess of $1 million dollars a mile to have them built – if you can get permission to site an electric line.  An example is the steel winds windmill project in Lackawanna – located on a brownfield near transmission lines.

Having major stimulus funds available and being hamstrung due to an inability to address the challenge of “no shovel ready sites” would be another lost opportunity for WNY.  These sites represent an enormous economic infrastructure need in WNY – each telling a tale of former prosperity up to and including the 1,600 acre Bethlehem site.

In the massive effort of restoring to “shovel ready” these multiple sites - drive the River Road from Buffalo to Niagara Falls – don’t skip Buffalo Avenue - there is another major opportunity.  Last Spring Senator Schumer was the keynote speaker at the Science Museum to highlight that the region had nearly the highest underrepresented unemployment in the country.  There exists a shelf-ready plan to train underrepresented individuals from brownfields impacted communities remediation skillsets. How could this not be running full throttle?

Readers, let's continue the dialogue.



Economic Development | Green | Obama
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