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Larry Quinn challenges the status quo

Larry Quinn is my new hero.

Never mind that Che Guevara was my last one, and I've been eying Subcomandante Marcos as a successor. And that I'm not so sure about the Bass Pro project that Quinn has seemingly been pursuing since, well, before I had gray hair, of which I now have a lot.

Larry quinnNo, Quinn is da man because he's done a terrific Howard Cosell imitation by telling it like it is regarding the rearrange-the-chairs-on-the-deck-of-the-Titanic recommendations a panel of insiders is prepared to foist on the public under the guise of reform.

As I report in today's paper, a committee of mostly former City Hall insiders has been meeting since last fall to consider ways to fix City Hall's cluster-you-know-what management of its economic development and block grant programs.

As I reported in October, the group is populated with a lot of the same folks who had a hand in creating the problems they are now being asked to fix.

The results are predicable -- hire better people, get the bureaucracy working better and address the obvious problems.

In other words, blah, blah, blah.

Think I'm exaggerating? Let me quote directly from the draft report:

The group's primary recommendations are that the economic development programs should be the responsibility of the Director of the Office of Strategic Planning and removed from the Department of Economic Development, Permits and Licenses.

Followed by:

An integrated delivery system to carry out economic development programs should utilize all available tools both in City Hall such as Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency (BURA), Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation (BERC), and Buffalo Urban Development Corporation (BUDC) as well as other regional economic development partners. 

Hey, stay awake, this is important stuff.

The Executive Director of the Office of Strategic Planning should be the chief economic development officer of the City, that the Department of Economic Development, Permits and Licenses should be restructured to focus on permitting, licensing and code enforcement and that the current economic development agencies (Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation, Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency( BURA) and Buffalo Urban Development Corporation (BUDC) should be retained but that administrative costs need to be significantly reduced. 

OK, now I'm getting sleepy. But I think you get the picture.

Lots of trees, little forest.

Look, I'm not saying some of their ideas aren't good. Rather, they don't go far enough.

It's kind of like a doctor treating someone with gangrene in their legs who spends all his time trying to figure out how to treat the left foot.

That is kind of what Quinn wrote -- minus the puss -- in a pointed three-page critique he sent to the unfortunate soul who put the panel's ideas to paper.

I'm going to step aside for a moment and let Larry speak his piece:

Honestly, the draft report reflects more of the same thinking that has led to failure upon failure. Modeling ourselves after Rochester is like Rebuilding Baghdad with the plan for Mogadishu.

I'm sure the delivery system is an issue, but the fundamental problems are much more serious and structural. The Answer is not to once again restructure city hall and then find a smart person whose salary the partnership can subsidize. Remember Tom Blanchard and Tim Wannamaker. Step outside the partnership mind set. Don't do the same things over and over and over again.

Please reflect on the fact that the city has spent almost a billion dollars of Block Grant money since its inception. With the exception of Georgia Prospect and the first phase of Pratt Willert, it has not really built or restored a single neighborhood. The Extreme Makeover show almost accomplished as much in a week as thirty years of the Block Grant.  We need real, deep, and, some might think, radical change. Although “efficiency, collaboration, and coordination” are nice buzz-words, they don't have any real meaning in this context.

Oh, this is too good to stop just yet.

Quinn goes on to outline guiding principles for reform that include:

Every neighborhood needs a credible partner to implement the plan. City Hall directed or city-wide organizations typically fail more than they succeed. They lack focus, accountability, and resources. An approach or model like The Erie Canal Harbor Development corporation is a great alternative. The Push group on the lower west side is another. If the city had, say 5, really good corporations that had real control over their budget and could implement activities without the bureaucracy of city hall, you would see real activity like we saw on Massachusetts Street happen all over the city.

Economic Development is a regional activity. Today our economic development effort is fractured and rudderless with resources dispersed as poorly as the city block grant program. Your report does not look inward at all. I think its imperative to redefine the Buffalo Niagara Partnership (reinstating the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation should be considered), the BNE, ECIDA, NY ESDC local office etc. and change them into a dynamic force for growth.

But wait, there's more.

I would love to see the total cost the community spends on staff for the Block Grant, Partnership, BNE, BUDC, ECIDA, ESDC, BURA, State Housing Office and the people assigned from HUD. I'm sure the number is staggering. If you are serious about Economic Development you have to start with a clean sheet of paper and rebuild the structure of the whole effort. Kicking City Hall is too easy and not very effective.

And now, for the grand finale. And grand it is. My sometimes reporting partner, the sometimes suffering Pat Lakamp, terms it "the best synopsis I've seen on this issue."

With all due respect, hiring a better and more professional staff, is ignoring the fundamental need for change. I'm sure these comments will have no weight. But I do feel sorry for the person you hire. If they are honest and hard working they will be like a lamb led to slaughter. Otherwise you'll get what you usually get, some one who attends conferences looking for their next job.

Right on, Larry, right on.

His letter ought to serve as a call to arms for anyone who cares about the future of this community.

Remember, it's still the economy, stupid.

Quinn Letter


Western New York continues in a downward spiral for a lot of reasons. Some are out of our control, some  within it. Economic development policy and practices are certainly within our control.

We've been doing the same thing over and over and over again, for years and years and years, with the same failed results. Quinn, in effect, is saying, stop dealing with the parts and step back to look at the whole -- and then blow it up and start over.

What are all these agencies doing? What are they spending to do it? How can we do it better?

These bureaucracies, and the developers who feed off of them, like the status quo. It keeps the former employed and the latter neck-deep in subsidies.

It's doing nothing for the rest of us, however, other than adding to our tax burden and increasing the odds that our kids will grow up and move out of town in search of a job.

Quinn has performed a public service, which begs the question: Who is going to pick up the ball and run with it?

Update: The Buffalo Pundit has weighed in.


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City Hall | Economic Development
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