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One more boarded up building

They started boarding up the Lafayette Hotel on Thursday. It will serve as a bookend to the boarded up Statler Building, which dropped some more chunks of cornice yesterday.

Lafayette hotel But not to fear, Mayor Byron Brown is on it, what with his third reorganization of City Hall's economic development operation in four years. Never mind that the first two didn't pan out and that the third one now underway involves employees sitting around with little to do because the city has stopped taking loan applications or making grants, effectively getting out of the economic development business for the time being.

People used to criticize then Mayor Anthony Masiello for "economic development by press release." Well, folks, what we have now is "economic development reform by press release."

The mayor has long said economic development is his priority. What he has to show thus far are boarded up buildings, a growing number of unemployed city residents and an economic development agency on life support.

Oh, and criminal investigations. Let's not forget about the investigations.

I wonder how that national job search for a commissioner of economic development is going. Have they so much as placed an ad yet?

Look, I don't expect the city's economy to be flourishing, given the recession. But City Hall needs to do the best it can with it has control over. And it's not. 

You can't even get the mayor to show up on time for BERC board meetings, if he shows up at all. What kind of message is that sending?

Akron ohio postcard I've been in several Rust Belt cities the past month, including Rochester and Akron, Ohio. I've ridden and walked their downtowns, and what's struck me is they don't have nearly as many boarded-up buildings as Buffalo.

In fact, their downtowns are in noticeably better shape.

People, I'm talking Akron. Frickin' Akron.

Akron and Rochester have been hammered just as hard as we have over the past generation, but their downtowns don't have expanses that look like Beirut, circa 1980. We've gotten more block grant aid and other economic development assistance than either city -- hell, we may have gotten more than the two of them put together over the past 30 years - and conditions here underscore how badly we've squandered the money.

I don't foresee anything changing soon, given City Hall's continuing ineptitude.

As Sonny and Cher once put it, the beat goes on.

Hit it, kids.

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Money for nothing at BERC

Things have gone from bad to worse at the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp.

Mind you, bad was bad. Loans to One Sunset. Grants to barbershops. Stuff like that.

The agency has descended into a state of paralysis since Mayor Byron Brown announced in February his intention to eliminate BERC and shift its work to the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.

You'd think the mayor would have had a plan in place before making the announcement, but he didn't. If you're looking for one now, well, keep looking.

Some board members - appointed independent of the mayor, who serves as chairman - were miffed that Brown didn't consult with them before announcing his intention to disband the agency. While I'm told there was some talk about fighting him, there was no evidence of that Tuesday at a board meeting I attended. Instead, there was a lot of talk about "transition."

It became clear to me as the meeting unfolded, and in several subsequent conversations I had with folks later in the day, that there is no plan in place to manage this transition. BERC President Dennis Penman told board members he and several high ranking members of the Brown administration - including Finance Commissioner Janet Penska - are working on it. But he doesn't expect the merger to be complete until September, maybe October.

In the meantime, BERC has stopped accepting loan applications and stopped making grants. Last month, its loan department did close on two previously approved loans worth $375,000, and there are two more in the pipeline, but that's it. If you call BERC seeking to apply for a loan, you're told "no can do."

Keep in mind that BERC does three basic functions - make loans, give grants and manage real estate. And on two of three fronts, there is precious little work to be done.

Now you might argue that given the agency's track record, this amounts to addition by subtraction. Problem is that all this inaction is costing money.

The agency employs, at last count, 25 people, at a cost of $1.2 million.  This money comes from block grant funds - i.e., money intended to fight poverty - and other money intended to promote economic development.

I asked Penman after the meeting if there was any plan to eliminate staff now that there is so much less to do. I was told no.

Later in the day I spoke to a rank-and-file staff member and asked what folks were doing now that the loan and grant programs have been suspended.

"Nothing," I was told. "Nothing."

Some of the staff in the field are managing to keep themselves busy. But many folks working out of BERC offices in City Hall have a lot of time on their hands.

Great. The economy is in the crapper. Poverty in the city is getting worse. Albany's fiscal crisis can't help but trickle down. Meanwhile, the city's economic development agency isn't doing much more than paying people a lot of money to do a little work.

Then there are the lawyers. Don't get me started on the lawyers. 

BERC has a full-time staff attorney. So does BURA. Nevertheless, the BERC board was told Tuesday of plans to hire outside counsel to deal with the merger of the two agencies.

All this leads to the obvious question: How many lawyers is it going to take to screw in this light bulb?

Answer: Too many.

All this grousing overlooks the larger issue related to the merger of BERC and BURA, one I wrote about when it was announced.

Moreover, while BERC has an independent board that includes members with professional expertise, the BURA board is controlled by the mayor and populated with politicians and staff who work for them.

It's pretty obvious that Brown announced the merger at his State of the City address to make a political splash - big surprise there, huh? - without doing his homework. More than a month later, there's not much progress to show. Then again, he got the spin he wanted at the time of the announcement, and wasn't that really the point?

On a more positive note, I'll close by reporting the mayor actually showed up for the BERC board meeting Tuesday. As I've reported in the past, he hasn't been in line for a perfect attendance sticker. But this time around, the mayor is marked down as "in attendance." Alas, he was tardy, showing up a half-an-hour late and doing little at the meeting aside from introducing a member of his staff. 

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(Follow this blog and my reporting on Facebook and Twitter. Have a story tip or something you want to share? e-mail me.)

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