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Mayor's proposed economic development solution wouldn't fix the problem

Brown, state of city 2010

There is a germ of a good idea -- and a couple of significant problems -- with Mayor Byron Brown's proposal to fold the Buffalo Economic Development Corp. into the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, as he announced Friday in his State of the City address.

What's good about the idea is that consolidation in this town of many silos is almost always a good idea. Both agencies are in the business of dealing with the city's economy and spending public money, much of it flowing from the federal government. True, the agencies don't have the exact same mission, but they're certainly not dissimilar or incompatible.

So, conceptually, the mayor is on the right path.

But there are at least two major problems with the proposal.

First, BURA is as screwed up an agency as BERC.

I say this (1) based on my first-hand dealings with both agencies and (2) BURA's documented track record.

Remember the critical audit of the city's use of block grant funds, in which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found 19 serious problems? Well, the agency responsible for staying on top of the program is, you guessed it, BURA. That tells you all you need to know.

Use whatever word you want -- inept, incompetent, indifferent -- they would all be applicable to the bureaucracy's performance.  That's not to say there aren't competent people on the payroll -- there are -- but there's not enough of them, and they work within what has historically been a dysfunctional system.

The problems don't stop with the bureaucracy. Nope, the agency's board is just as brutal, and ultimately responsible.

Keep in mind that this is the crew that last fall used its power over block grant allocations to reward and punish housing and human service agencies not for their performance, but their allegiance to the mayor. Organizations whose leaders have expressed criticism of the mayor, or operate in neighborhoods that didn't vote the right way in the mayoral primary last fall, paid the price.

Then there's the manner in which the BURA board handled proposals in December 2008 to build a waterfront hotel at the entrance to the Erie Basin Marina. The experts said to choose a proposal advanced by a consortium headed by Mark Hamister and Ciminelli Development. But the board, at Brown's insistence, instead chose a much more modest project fronted by former Common Council President James W. Pitts, which, by the way, hasn't gotten off the drawing board.

Which leads me to my other major point -- the mayor appoints a majority of the BURA board and therefore controls the agency. Given his track record, do we really want to give Brown carte blanche?

I mean, look at the current makeup of the BURA board -- Brown; Janet Penksa, his finance commissioner; Drew Eszak, the city planner Brown tried to get rid of a while back only to keep when he couldn't find a suitable replacement; Acting Corporation Counsel David Rodriguez; former Common Council member Nick Bonifacio (a Brown appointee); and three current Council members, Dave Franczyk, Mike LoCurto and Mickey Kearns.

Is this the crew you want making the decisions on economic development?

You can grouse about BERC's governing board -- please do -- but at least some of them have professional expertise. That's the byproduct of a self-appointing board that, in theory, functions independent of the mayor. In theory.

On the other hand, to sit on the BURA board, you've only got to be employed by the mayor or be one of his political supporters, or be a member of the Common Council.

No real qualifications are required -- and few are evident.

You can justly criticize the BERC board for not being a close enough watchdog of what its staff has been up to. But the problems that have landed BERC on the front page -- and in hot water -- originated with the staff.

Remember, bankers on the board had the common sense to reject a loan application by Leonard Stokes to help finance One Sunset. It was the staff that found a roundabout way to give him money. And those grants to barbershops? Staff decisions not subject to board approval. And who was the staff taking its cues from? The mayor's office.

So, if the mayor wants to merge BERC with BURA, I say, fine, provided it's led by an independent, qualified board and manned by a competent bureaucracy.

As now constituted, BURA has neither.

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City Hall still not lending to business

You want the good news or bad news first?

OK, the good news.

The governing board of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. met earlier this week and did not approve a single grant for a barbershop.

More good news. Kinda.

Mayor Byron Brown, chairman of the BERC board, showed up for the meeting. For five or 10 minutes, anyway. Then he was off. But hey, he put in an appearance, something he doesn't do all that often.

The bad news?

Eric Gadley, who BERC pays about $72,000 a year as its chief lending officer, once again gave a monthly update in which he had no new loans to report.

In fact, BERC has not made a loan since October. That's five months.

I checked our loan database and BERC over the past 12 months has made a grand total of eight loans worth $1.3 million. That works out to a loan every month and a half.

A board member asked Gadley how the loan activity matched up against BERC's goals for the year.

The answer: There are no goals.

This lack of lending has become a trend since Brown took office.

But not to worry. BERC President Dennis Penman said he expected to deliver recommendations to the mayor by the end of the week on how to reform the city's economic development and block grant programs..

If you read this blog on a regular basis, you know all about the plan. It's the one put together by some of the very people who helped create the problems that they have now come up with a plan to solve. Without talking to anyone outside their little circle.

Adam Walters, a BERC board member, made that point when he said: "There is little engagement between the front line people and this (Penman) committee. We have a front line view of what is working and what is not."

Walters also noted that he learned that Penman's committee wants all BERC board members to resign by reading about it in the newspaper.

Walters has reason to be miffed. I mean, the least Penman could have done is call in Donald Trump.




I've got a question about this firing-the-board idea.

The board is self-appointing. If everyone resigns, who appoints?

The mayor?

Hmmmm, wouldn't that be convenient?

Elsewhere during the meeting, another board member -- Tom Kucharski, president of Buffalo Niagara Enterprises -- took a shot at Larry Quinn for the letter he penned with pointed criticism of the Penman committee's recommendations. He termed Quinn's actions "juvenile."

Brave words, considering Quinn has Rob Ray on his payroll, albeit as a broadcaster these days.


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More detail on the One Sunset disaster

Stokes, leonard

Can indictments be far behind?

And perhaps a few more firings?

We've known since last spring, when Pat Lakamp and I reported on the city's bankrolling of One Sunset,that the $160,000 in loans and grants City Hall and the ECIDA put into the business were a terrible investment.

An audit done by the city comptroller that was released Monday provides more gory details.

"The use of these funds were mismanaged from the very start," the audit concluded.

City and county development officials come off as incompetent, at best, and possibly complicit in the fleecing of the public.

What's more, it's pretty clear that unknown parties flat out stole from the business.

The audit found that $27,985 of the ECIDA loan can't be accounted for, nor can $38,000 of inventory. And there's the matter of money lent to pay bills that were never paid.

Here are the "highlights:"

-- The restaurant lost money every month it was open. For example, the "business plan," and I used the term loosely, projected a $154,020 profit the first 3 1/2 months of operation. Instead, it lost $178,126. And that's not counting the sales tax that the restaurant collected, but never turned over to the state.

-- One Sunset owner Leonard Stokes's credit score was so bad that it should have disqualified him from borrowing.

-- The Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. made exceptions left and right to help Stokes, pictured above. His business was given a $30,000 grant without having to make a required match. BERC made additional exceptions when it lent Stokes money despite his poor credit score. The agency also failed to hold Stokes to several loan terms. Most egregious - it lent him $40,000 to pay off vendors, but he never paid the debts.

-- BERC took Stokes' word that he invested $119,000 in the restaurant without ever receiving supporting documentation. Then again, the audit said BERC never reviewed his original business plan, either. No need to, I guess, given that Pat and I previously reported that city officials who were supposed to review it actually wrote it. 

-- The ECIDA failed to do its homework before deciding to lend Stokes $50,000. In fact, One Sunset had expenses of $53,711 and sales of just $14,889 the month before the IDA awarded Stokes the loan.  

"If the ECIDA had performed adequate due diligence,as they publicly stated in newspaper reports, they would have discovered the downward trend in revenue and presumably would have never approved the new loan," the audit said.

Michelle Barron,the BERC vice president who was neck deep in the One Sunset deal, right down to buying the bar stools and helping manage the restaurant, was fired over the summer. Eric Gadley, the agency's chief lending officer whose fingerprints are also over the deal, still has his job. And that would be because why?

Likewise, no one at the ECIDA has paid a price for that agency's actions. Criticize the city all you want - please - but don't forget about the IDA.

Hey, Chris Collins, do you tolerate this kind of behavior in your businesses?

Why are you tolerating it at your IDA?

Brown on primary night While the audit doesn't address the question of Mayor Byron Brown's possible role in the restaurant deal, Darryl McPherson, the city's chief auditor, told Brian Meyer in an interview that Brown's hands are clean.

"What happened at BERC [with One Sunset] had nothing to do with the mayor," McPherson said Monday. "This wasn't about him tampering with operations."

I'm not sure what McPhearson is basing this on. I don't know if Brown played a role or not, but I'm skeptical that Barron and Gadley wandered this far off the reservation of their own volition.

I say this because (1) BERC didn't cut this many corners or ignore so many of its own policies for other business deals it has made and (2) Brown has a documented history of involvement with Stokes, most notably when he interceded right before police were ready to arrest Stokes. 

Like I said, I'm not saying Brown greased the skids for Stokes on the restaurant deal. I'm just saying.

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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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Chris Collins and the politics of 'let 'em eat cake'

Collins 2 When you think about it, Chris Collins is CEO of the biggest social service agency between New York City and Cleveland.

Two-thirds of Erie County's $1.1 billion budget is spent on social, health and human service programs. We're talking everything from welfare to health clinics to child abuse services, with a collective price tag of some $695 million.

Given what the the county executive is responsible for, it's especially -- I don't know, what's the word? ironic? troublesome? cruel? -- that Collins holds these programs in such low regard.

I mean, if you didn't want to deal with social services, why seek the job?

Consider what Collins has done in his two years on the job:

He was in office just three months when he pulled the plug on county participation in a program aimed at ending drug abuse among the young. Last March, he ended county participation in the federally funded Women, Infants and Children nutrition program

In both instances, he said other agencies could pick up the slack, and that ending county participation would save money. On the latter point, not even the Legislature Republicans were with him, as they joined the Democrats in presenting a united front in asking Collins to keep the county in the nutrition program.

Regardless, Collins was just getting warmed up.

He wanted to close two East Side health clinics last year. Foiled by the County Legislature, he has the clinics instead turning away many patients, in what appears to be an effort to slowly strangle the operations.

Of late, Collins has axed county funding for subsidies that provide child care for 1,100 children of low-income working parents, a move that will likely put some families back on the welfare rolls. It's been dubbed Collins' "work to welfare" program.

His intractable position on the issue was the focus of a protest Tuesday in which County Legislators Maria Whyte and Betty Jean Grant, among others, took Collins to task for sabotaging the program despite its benefits, as articulated by the Legislature.

Child care protest

It's hard not to recognize a pattern. A disturbing one, given that county government sits in the nation's third-poorest city.

What to make of Collins' antipathy towards these programs?

One could argue that he's out of touch, probably never was in touch.

I mean, the guy lives in a million dollar house in the exclusive enclave of Spaulding Lake in Clarence. He's a millionaire many times over thanks to his extensive business holdings, according to the financial disclosure report he's required to file with the county.

But if you think he's indifferent to the plights of poor inner-city residents, well, you're only half right. He hasn't shown any concern for the region's growing ranks of the unemployed either.

You can find them everywhere from Springville to Alden, and all points in between. Except, maybe, Spaulding Lake.

As my colleague David Robinson reported last month: "The Buffalo Niagara region’s unemployment rate jumped up to 8.5 percent in December as continued job losses kept the number of people without jobs at its highest level in at least 20 years."

Yeah, you can't put it all on Collins, as a national recession took hold during his first year in office. But, because of that recession, the federal government has provided Erie County $74 million in stimulus money over the past 18 months to help spur job growth, and President Obama's proposed 2010-2011 budget would ship another $20 million here during the first six months of the new federal fiscal year.

You'd think $94 million would help spur some job creation, but Collins hasn't sunk a penny of it into creating gainful employment. Nope, he's socked it all into the county budget, to shore up Erie County's finances and avoid the need to raise taxes.

Thus, politics trumps putting people to work.

It's no real surprise to those who have been paying attention to his efforts on the economic development front.

A year ago, in his State of the County address, Collins declared his intention to quarterback the region's economic revival. In the days leading up to his address, he did a media blitz talking about his Ten Point Plan, produced a 15-page brochure with all the details and produced several videos that he posted on YouTube.

Yup, 2009 was going to be the Year Of Economic Development, and the County Executive Who Runs Government Like a Business was going to lead the charge.

It didn't turn out that way.

Put aside the recession and all those nasty job losses. Let's examine what Collins had some degree of control over.

Did he successfully launch any major economic development initiatives?

Did he attempt to be a player in the reshaping of economic development policies, such as reform of Empire Zones or the redeployment of low-cost hydropower generated at the Niagara Power Project.

Can he point to a significant success, a big win, on any front?

The answers, people, are "no," "no," and "no."

When I look back on the year, all that comes to mind is Collins' appointment of Kathy Konst as his top economic development official, she of minimal qualifications whose departure from the County Legislature provided Collins with maximum political returns.

Marie_antoinette_executionCollins' style of economic politics may play well with the martini crowd at the country club. But it is doing nothing for those who down draft beer at taverns and sports bars across this community.

If you're a working mom looking for help with child care or an out-of-work factory worker, Chris Collins offers not a plan, but a piece of cake. Which sometimes doesn't make for good politics.

Just ask Marie.

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Who needs Jay or Conan with Sarah? And other observations

Random thoughts on another cold and dreary day in the City of No Illusions:

It's time the Common Council selected a successor to replace Brian Davis. It's going on two months since Davis resigned his Ellicott District seat, the Council has interviewed all the candidates, and Democratic committeemen have finally made their recommendation. Please, put us out of our misery.

I can't help but notice the number of subsidy deals being approved by the Erie County Industrial Development Agency that have little to do with industry or creating a significant number of good-paying jobs.

The deal cut between Erie County Executive Chris Collins and Legislature Chairman Barbara Miller-Williams to provide $300,000 in funding to the Colored Musicians Club, while eliminating funds earmarked for other projects, looks even more dubious with the news that Miller-Williams' husband is vice president of the club's board of directors.

I realize that some of Gov. David Paterson's rhetoric aimed at the State Legislature amounts to self-serving hot air and that some of the more ambitious proposals he has floated may be more for show than anything. But it's still good to hear someone at his level of public office tell it like it is.

With Sarah Palin slated to appear regularly on Fox News, do we really need Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien for televised laughs anymore?

It's been a long time since I saw as contrived a controversy as the one involving comments Sen. Harry Reid made about Barack Obama during the presidential campaign.

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Two angles from Albany

There's lots to digest from Gov. David Paterson's State of the State address. For right now, let's talk about his proposal to eliminate the Empire Zone program.

Tom Precious explains:

A new Excelsior Jobs Program would be created under the Paterson proposal, with a focus on high-tech and clean energy jobs. It would expand research and development tax credits for companies engaged in those sectors and offer new money for capital investment by private firms. Firms in high technology, biotechnology, clean energy, and finance and manufacturing sectors would also get special tax breaks if they create and maintain a set number of jobs over five years.

At first blush, the proposal sounds like a step in the right direction, dare I say forward thinking, at least so far as the push to promote high-tech and clean energy. Western New York has particular potential in the latter.

This much is certain. Just about anything would be an improvement on the Empire Zone program.

The first-blush response from business interests is not positive. No surprise, given that Paterson wants to end corporate welfare as they know it. 

MaziarzAlso noteworthy out of Albany is news that George Maziarz is one of two Republicans to gain an appointment to a Senate Committee. He'll head up the Energy Committee, which he chaired for a spell in the final year of the GOP's control of the Senate the year before last.

Yes, he's from WNY, and yes, this might give him some leverage, or at least a bully pulpit, when it comes to the New York Power Authority, and yes, in theory, that's a good thing.

But I expect that Maziarz, for the most part, won't use the power of the chairmanship for much more than narrow political purposes. 

He was holding hands and otherwise cuddling with NYPA when George Pataki was governor and his appointees controlled the authority. Along came Eliot Spitzer, followed by Democratic control of the Senate and -- BANG! -- the authority became his public enemy No. 1.   

Maziarz became what I consider a phony populist, criticizing, after the fact, the relicensing deal involving the Niagara Power Project and blasting the authority for not allocating power to companies that were seeking outrageously generous subsidies and a modest increase in rates to municipal utilities outside the region that enjoy deep-deep-deep discounts.

Meanwhile, for years, when he held influence on the Energy Committee when the Republicans were in charge of the governor's mansion and the Senate, Maziarz did nothing to help WNY get a better deal from NYPA.

Among his legacy of failure:

  • Not pushing legislation, or otherwise working behind the scenes, to get WNY its fair share of the profits generated at the Niagara Power Project.
  • Ditto for revising the criteria for how local industry gets NYPA power to rein in subsidies that, in the extreme, total as much as $150,000 per job, per year.
  • Being a non-factorwhen the region was negotiating with NYPA when the authority sought to extend its license to operate the hydropower plant in Lewiston. Thanks to Rep. Brian Higgins, the region squeezed some extra money out of NYPA, but not nearly as much as WNY might have otherwise secured.

The contracts for big power customers will be renegotiated this year and look for Maziarz to push for a continuation of the status quo. That would allow him to posture as saving jobs, while also positioning himself for big campaign contributions from the corporations that would benefit from more business as usual.

Mariarz's appointment raises another concern -- just how did the Senate leadership decide that he should be one of only two Republicans to get a committee chairmanship?

Could the hand of Steve Pigeon be involved?

Let's see. Pigeon is chief counsel to Pedro Espada, the Senate majority leader, who, last June, bolted to the Republicans for a spell.

Moreover, Maziarz has been playing footsies with Pigeon and Tom Golisano for a couple of years, as evidenced by the $10,000 Responsible New York contributed to the Maziarz-controlled Niagara County Republican Committee in October 2008.

The Albany Times Union and New York Daily News have more details on the Maziarz's appointment.

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Brown a BERC no-show again

Sometimes Byron Brown all but writes my posts for me.

On Sunday I noted that even though he's chairman of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., the mayor skips more meetings than he attends.

On Wednesday, BERC had its first board meeting since Oct. 21 and, you guessed it, the mayor didn't attend.

Neither did Deputy Mayor Donna Brown, the administration's other representative on the board.

I don't know about you, but I'm sitting here shaking my head.

Is the mayor that tone deaf?

Or does he simply not care?

Peter Cutler, his spokesman, said Brown had a scheduling conflict and the deputy mayor had a family emergency.

I'm sorry, but if you're the mayor and your primary economic development agency is performing as poorly as it is, and when the fallout is causing all sorts of political grief, I'm hard-pressed to think of what might be more important to attend to.

Brown's day wasn't so busy that the photo op mayor didn't have time to hang with actor Keanu Reeves Wednesday evening and present him with a snow globe featuring City Hall. (I am not making this up).

Brown with reeves


As an extra bonus, I have obtained exclusive footage of the attendance roll call at BERC's board meeting  Wednesday. Substitute "Brown" for "Bueller" to get the full effect.


'nuff said.

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The other Partnership's priorities

We've got two "Partnerships" in town and in the past three weeks we've been given the benefit of their competing visions for the community.

Late last month, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership summoned its people and compliant politicians like Chris Collins and Byron Brown to unveil a REGIONAL AGENDA! Yeah, technically, it was a shared vision, but Andrew Rudnick's fingerprints, palm prints and footprints were all over it, right down for a call to eliminate any progressive elements of national health care reform.

In a nutshell, the folks crying for government to cut taxes and generally get government off our backs asked Albany and Washington for $450 million in capital projects. Stuff like parking ramps, football stadiums and other projects that would supposedly turn this community around.

Wednesday, the Partnership for the Public Good unveiled its 10 priorities for the coming year at the Merriweather Library on Jefferson Avenue.

Chris Collins wasn't in the room; he must have been busy counting all the money it's going to take to pay those Washington lawyers he's hired to defend the abuse of county prisoners.

The mayor? I dunno, maybe he was down the street getting a haircut at one of the barbershops he doled out grant money to.

Allison duwe For those of you who don't know about PPG, as it's known in progressive circles, it's an umbrella organization of nonprofit organizations trying ot make a difference. People like Aaron Bartley of PUSH Buffalo and Allison Duwe of the Coalition for Economic Justice, pictured right.

This is the third year they've developed, in collaboration with partner organizations, a list of priorities that have at least a fighting chance of getting accomplished and an organization working towards that end.

Allow me to run down the list quickly, then focus on the most intriguing one:

-- Deal with poverty through the continued promotion of living wage initiatives.

-- Improve conditions at the downtown holding center and county jail in Alden.

-- Maintain inner-city health care centers targeted by Collins.

-- Revive stalled efforts to deal with the growing number of housing vacancies not only in the city, but inner-ring suburbs.

-- Eliminate toxic pollution belching from Tonawanda Coke. (In the interest of disclosure, my daughter, Erin, is executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, which is leading that fight).

-- Launch initiatives in two targeted communities to promote green initiatives that would result in, among other things, lower utility bills and provide jobs for poor people performing green retro-fits of houses.

-- Improve the access of low-income city residents to healthy food through a number of initiatives, including the promotion of urban farming and establishment of a city Food Policy Council.

-- Reform state economic development subsidy programs, namely Empire Zones and industrial development agencies, to promote the creation of quality jobs and corporate accountability.

-- Reform state campaign finance laws to include, among other things, lower contribution limits, matching public financing and more vigorous enforcement.

-- Last, and not least, negotiate a community benefits agreement for Canal Side, a.k.a. Bass Pro.

Community benefits agreements aren't common in these parts, but they're used in some other communities, and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy has proved particularly adept at negotiating them out in la-la land for projects involving oodles of public money. (Here's an excellent primer on CBAs from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.)

The PPG folks here would like to see an agreement on five issues, and I'll quote directly:

-- living wage jobs.

-- environmentally friendly buildings and operations.

-- locally owned businesses.

-- mixed income housing.

-- a building and site design appropriate to the location.

Quinn, canal sideI got hold of Larry Quinn last night, the guy with the pointer on the left and one of the main movers behind Canal Side, and bounced the proposed CBA off him. I thought he might take exception, but he was pretty receptive.

"I agree with four of their five points," he said.

Living wages is where he parts ways with PPG.

"I don't blame them for their sentiments, but I think instituting a living wage would result in fewer jobs, not more," Quinn said. "It doesn't reflect the real marketplace for jobs."

Hmmm, sounds like, on balance, there's room for a constructive dialog.

The biggest disappointment of Wednesday's event came near the end, when politicians in attendance were invited to make a few remarks. Maria Whyte was a bit of a let down.

Oh, it wasn't anything she said. In fact, it was nice to hear a politician speak without saying "I" over and over again. (Of course, that kind of conduct over time could land her in hot water with the politicians' union.)

No, it was that, for the first time in which I've heard her speak, Whyte didn't once punctuate her remarks with a clenched fist or three.

I know it's the week before Christmas and all, but don't go soft on us, Maria.

I distinctly remember her at a rally outside Tonawanda Coke a couple of months back, railing against plant owner J.D. Crane, cradling her baby in one arm and pumping her fist with the other. It was something to behold, people.

I haven't see that kind of progressive passion on a local stage since Gene Fahey had a full head of hair.

No empty pants suit, she.

Which begs the question: What are you doing in four years, Maria?

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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?

IMG_0224

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.

IMG_0219

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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