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Progress, of sorts, on the Bass Pro project

No, no, Bass Pro hasn't stopped hemming and hawing about whether it will actually commit to building a store at the foot of Main Street.

Rather, the Common Council has gone on record in favor of a community benefits agreement for the Canal Side project. A unanimous vote, in fact. As in, Mickey Kearns and Damone Smith actually agreed on something.

You can argue the specifics of the CBA -- and people will, over the coming months -- but the mere fact a community benefits agreement is being seriously discussed represents progress.

I say this because a CBA for Canal Side would represent one of the first instances in this town in which a wide range of specific public benefits would be more than an afterthought in the construction of a publicly subsidized development.

Think of the ways in which government has thrown hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies at businesses, be it deeply discounted hydropower to industry via the New York Power Authority to big tax breaks to downtown businesses under the Empire Zone program to yet other big tax breaks granted to businesses by industrial development agencies.

Suffice to say, looking at the economic landscape in the nation's third-poorest city, the subsidies have worked better for the businesses that have gotten them than the public that has doled them out. That's in part because there has been little built into the subsidies by way of real benchmarks and accountability.

A community benefits agreement changes that. In the case of the resolution passed by the Council, a CBA for Canal Side would:

... ensure that small local businesses — not just big- box retailers — would be accommodated and nurtured. For example, one clause would set aside three-quarters of all retail space that is not part of the Bass Pro development for locally owned, independent businesses.

The pact also would set local and minority hiring goals for temporary and permanent jobs, require builders to use environmentally friendly "green" technology and include affordable housing.

One of the most controversial provisions would require businesses with more than 20 employees to pay a living wage, a rate that is higher than the state's minimum wage.

It behooves both the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and CBA advocates to find a way of negotiating an agreement. Not that there wouldn't be a need for compromise.

For a guy like Larry Quinn, a mover and shaker on the Canal Side board, a CBA would show that he means business when he says this town needs to take a different approach to economic development.

For CBA advocates, getting a deal in place would represent a first of sorts, which would give them something to build on. The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy has mastered the art of negotiating CBAs, and I suspect its first deal wasn't perfect. But it was a start to bigger and better things.

As for whether Bass Pro ever puts a shovel in the ground, well that remains to be seen. But it's very likely something is going to happen at the foot of Main Street, and a CBA could help promote a better return on the public investment.

Whether the project as proposed represents a good public investment is a question for another day.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, the Buffalo Pundit has some thoughts on the Council's action.

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City Hall | Economic Development
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