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A job half-done on Jefferson Avenue

I don't necessarily have a problem with the city's putting nearly $1.3 million in grant money into a six-block stretch of Jefferson Avenue, as documented by my colleague Pat Lakamp.

No, here's my problem.

See this building?

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It's on the northwest corner of Jefferson and Woodlawn avenues, right smack in the stretch that the city has poured grant money into. The building houses Project Head Start, and was constructed by the Bethel Community Development Corp. with the help of city loans. Head Start is a good program and the building looks fine.

So what's the problem?

Look across the street.

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Ugh. It's vacant. Looks like is has been that way for a while, judging by the broken windows, peeling paint and weeds coming through the sidewalk.

The city has taken the revolving door of owners to Housing Court nine times in the last seven years. The current case involves 14 violations and the law department has been asked to draft a demolition order. Meanwhile, the building owner is a year late paying the property taxes.

And therein lies the problem.

The city sinks nearly $1.3 million of grants into Jefferson Avenue and loans more than a half-million-dollars to neighborhood businesses and development corporations. And stops there.

No successful code enforcement of other buildings along Jefferson, not if the history of 1423 Jefferson is any indicator.

Ditto for houses in the surrounding neighborhood.

Housing rehab?

Not judging by the looks of nearby side streets.

A concerted effort to help businesses grow?

Not by the numerous failures and continuing struggles.

Enhanced policing?

Not by my reading of crime reports at Police HQ.

It's so typical of the city. Throw a lot of money at one part of a larger problem and ignore the rest of it. Show up for the photo op, and then move on.

This is an especially unwise use of federal and state aid, given the city's desperate poverty and limited resources to deal with it.

If I'm doing business along some of the other commercial strips in the city that are designated for the same program that has underwritten the grants on Jefferson, I might be peeved.

Why 50,000 roof jobs?

Why $150,000 in grants to a restaurant with a history of being a tax deadbeat?

Why more than a quarter million dollars in grants for barbershops and beauty salons?

Why were businesses along Jefferson the only ones not required to find matching money for the city grants they received?

All legitimate questions.

But let's stick with the assumption that Jefferson, between East Ferry and Landon streets, is a legitimate stretch of real estate to sink the money into. Or, shall I say, continue to sink money into. The city, dating back to Tony Masiello's tenure as mayor, has built a fire house and a public library and converted the Apollo Theater into a media center.

Have taxpayers gotten a fair return for their investment?

Those Masiello-era projects have certainly helped and the $1.3 million in grants to business were supposed to build off them, especially when it came to curb appeal.

How is the street looking? Does it scream -- or at least whisper -- million dollar upgrade?

Pat and I walked the street one day recently. It still looks pretty beat. Lots of vacant lots. Some buildings look pretty good. Others don't. Then there's the eyesore at 1423.

I realize it's going to take more than $1.3 million in grants to help bring back Jefferson Avenue and its surrounding neighborhoods. But sinking that money into the commercial district absent a larger plan undermines that investment.

As Craig D. Rogers, an associate professor of economics and finance at Canisius College, said:

"These grants, individually, will not have an impact on Jefferson Avenue, or any targeted business area for that matter, without these programs being tied to a larger, broader, more comprehensive economic development plan."

Moral of the story: If you're going to "do" Jefferson -- or any other commercial strip in the city -- do it right.

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City Hall | Economic Development
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