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Widen this circle

There have been some quiet, behind-the-scenes meetings taking place the last month or two aimed at trying to figure out how to fix the mother-of-a-problem involving the city's use of public dollars, mostly federal, to combat poverty and promote economic development.

Penman "What we have to do is take 30 years of layering on not 'best practices' and clean it up to start fresh," said Dennis Penman, left, acting president of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., who initiated the effort.

OK, I can go for that. A rethinking is certainly in order, preferably accompanied by a couple of sticks of dynamite to blow things up and start over.

But here's the rub -- the folks summoned to sort things out include many of the usual suspects, in some cases the very people who helped get us in this fix to begin with.

Participants include former city economic development commissioners and/or senior staff, including Chuck Rosenow, Larry Rubin, Jim Militello, Larry Quinn, Fred Fadel, Pete Cammarata  and Dave Stebbins. Some of them are bright, others are part of a long line of bureaucrats who, along with the politicians, built the dysfunctional system that needs fixing.

Others in the room have included Nancy Peacock, No. 2 person in the local HUD office; Robert Gioia, whose latest Mr. Insider hat includes foundation bigwig; former Common Council President Jim Pitts; and a couple of folks from the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

Curious names. I mean, HUD has spent 20 years mostly looking the other way and Pitts is one of the leading political architects of this mess. From them, we expect solutions?

In typical Buffalo style, we've got top-down -- a group of mostly older, white establishment guys sitting around talking about how to help poor black folks.

The people in the trenches making things happen, guys like Aaron Bartley of PUSH Buffalo or Michael Clarke of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., are nowhere to be found. To say nothing of people in the community who all this federal money is supposed to be helping.

Penman said this may be the opening salvo of what could evolve into a broader, more-inclusive process. He described the handful of meetings held so far as informal, "more fact finding, a listening tour."

"If it's going to move forward, it should be a more formalized, public process," Penman said.

Notably, he said, a broader base of people should be included if the process evolves. His hope would be to have recommendations to the mayor by February-March.

I'm not sure how to go about this. Closed-door meetings of insiders doesn't feel right, especially with the crew Penman has pulled together. Nor does a blue-ribbon panel approach, which usually produces a lot of politically correct hot air and a report that sits on a shelf collecting dust.

Don't get me wrong; folks with experience in the system are worth hearing out.

But so too are the growing cadre of young, smart progressive people, many of them affiliated with the Partnership for the Public Good, who are doing good work in the field while boning up on best practices elsewhere.

Personally, I think we ought to treat this like New Year's Eve. You know, out with the old, in with the new.

Get a few of the sage graybeards to work with the young Turks and, by all means, involve at some meaningful level the people who these federal dollars are supposed to be helping.

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City Hall | Economic Development
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