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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?

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


Here comes the sun

Today's theme is "sun."

Buffalo is hosting a big national solar conference this coming week. Check it out. There's a lot we can learn as a community.

I found this post on solar power from Gristmill interesting and it has me wondering if there's something in it for Western New York.

The New York Power Authority is funding a big solar initiative at the University at Buffalo.

And now, for your listening entertainment ... 

Piggybacking on Ontario's green ambitions

As I noted a week ago, Ontario is planning to go green in a big way. Sweeping legislation has been introduced that's expected to pass in slam-dunk fashion that, among other things, is projected to create up to 50,000 green-sector jobs and allow the province to leapfrog any states south of the border that fancy themselves sustainable showcases. Business, labor, greens and farmers all seem to be on board.

In short, our neighbors to the north want to to be the top (green) dog in North America, and see both economic and environmental benefits to being so.

What's in it for us here in Western New York?

I posed that question to some green and economic development types, and what I heard back confirms my own gut feeling. That is to say ...


Or, as Jim Allen, head of the Amherst IDA put it: "This could be an exciting opportunity to revitalize the Great Lake states' economies and as such we should pursue it aggressively."

Let's hear more from Allen, who, for my money, is one of the best mainstream economic development thinkers in the region. 

"All of the Great Lake border states should explore this initiative with Ontario province to determine whether a joint venture would be possible. 

"If all of the US border states and the province of Ontario were to make a collaborative effort to achieve the goals imagined in the Ontario proposal, the Great Lakes region would have a competitive advantage over most other regions throughout the world. 

"An initiative such as this could be a first step in creating the mega-region that Richard Florida has talked about." 

Next up is Dave Bradley, perhaps the brainiest of the wind power experts we have in the region:

"This appears to be a seismic shift in the North American renewables scene. To quote a famous saying.....'It's huge, Buffalo.'

"The GEA is a very logical response to this bad economic news.

"If only Ontario does this, and combined with Quebecs huge RFP policy (which produces the same electricity prices, but mandates production of equipment in Quebec in clever ways that NYPA might want to study), the new renewable energy center for the Great Lakes will reside in
Quebec and Ontario.

"After all, they have steel, copper, aluminum, chemicals and glass production, cement production/resources, a sophisticated workforce and industrial infrastructure, lots of workers
willing to work (and no health insurance problems - single payer, government run, no private insurance stuff), and huge electricity demand centers in metro Toronto and Montreal, plus lots of other sites like London, Sarnia, Windsor, Sault St Marie, Hamilton, Niagara Falls, etc.

"I'm jealous. Good beer, and now good renewable energy law. How can NY hope to stay competitive? Well, if you can't beat them, join 'em."

Last, but not least, is Walter Simspon, co-founder of the Western New York Climate Action Coalition:

"The renewable energy and green jobs proposal under consideration in Ontario puts claims of New York energy leadership to rest and may have the unfortunate effect of sucking green jobs north of the border unless leaders in Albany and Buffalo respond with similarly aggressive policy changes and programs. 

"It is time that NY seriously consider feed-in tariffs to accelerate renewable energy development. 

"And locally, we need to see Mayor Brown, our WNY state delegation and Rep. Brian Higgins step up to the plate and commit to attracting a major wind turbine builder to Buffalo before all regional wind energy manufacturing is in Ontario. 

"The bottom line is that we are not doing enough to switch to sustainable energy technologies and address global warming. One result of that failure may be that our much hoped for green economy does not take off, hurting the economic recovery and our hurting pocketbooks."

My own take on this is that this can't be entrusted to the usual suspects in the political, business and economic development community. They're not going to get anything done, they probably don't even see the need.

Nope, the people who are smart on this issue need to act quickly to piece together at least the framework of a plan and start pushing it. Starting, like, now. Step 1 is weighing in here.

Less green, more broke

Some random reports ...

Green, we ain't: There are several rating systems that assess the energy efficiency and/or green qualities of buildings. I wrote about LEED standards last April, reporting that the Buffalo Niagara region has relatively few buildings designed and constructed to those standards.

Another indicator is based on the Energy Star rating system, which just issued new data showing where buildings meeting those standards are located. Some 3,305 buildings nationwide made the grade in 2008. There are 128 in New York State, including 13 in Rochester, eight in Albany and -- a drum roll, please -- one in Buffalo, a facility the VA built on Bailey Avenue. There's another one in Williamsville and one other in Attica.

That gives us all of three in the region.

By contrast, the Detroit region has 65, Milwaukee 62 and Grand Rapids -- Grand Rapids! -- 42.

Here's the complete list

Poorer we are:  Federal bankruptcies nationwide rose 31 percent last year. Big surprise, huh?

Our per capita rate In New York was 2.42 per 1,000, better than the national average of 3.62.  

Poorer we are II: The lead on this story says it all:

 New York state, in the final quarter of 2008, lost over 25 percent of the jobs it had gained since the last downturn, a statistic that reveals the deepening recession, the labor department said on Thursday.

This means 110,300 people working at private companies lost their jobs in just three months.

Hmmmm: For those of you interested in such things, the U.S. Department of State is maintaining a map tracking the travels of Hillary. Gee, ya think Hillary has a tracker on Bubba?

Double hmmmm: A blogger called Street Corner Conservative has this latest missive on Richard Kessel, head of the New York Power Authority, and the move by the governor and Legislature raiding his shop for big bucks to help bail out the state budget. Read into it what you want. The post left me wondering if Kessel wasn't grimacing on the inside as the Three Men in the Room made off with the cash.

Perhaps, like me, he thinks the three could at least have had the decency of wearing ski masks.

Obama, Take 2

How can Western New York parlay an Obama presidency into progress?

I posed that question to a number of people I've dealt with over the years and I got back two overriding themes.

Obama "gets" cities and thus we can expect a more enlightened approach to urban issues. And we've got urban issues.

We've also got a lot of green potential, and Obama also gets green.

So, we've got some things to work with. Not that we've gotten off on the right foot.

Over the weekend, Erie County Executive Chris Collins and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown held a press conference to unveil their respective county and city "stimulus package proposals." Really just a couple of wish lists of public works projects they'd like Washington to fund. Stuff including new docks at Erie Basin Marina, air conditioning for City Hall and numerous road repairs.

Collins and Brown couldn't even be bothered merging and prioritizing their lists, much less sitting down with the folks in Niagara County to develop a regionwide strategic plan.

Nope, it's everyman for himself.

This is what passes for leadership in this town.

Here's a flavor of what some of the folks who responded to my e-mail had to say, edited lightly for brevity and clarity:

Mike Clarke, executive director of the Buffalo office of the Local Initiatives Services Corp., a non-profit that underwrites local housing and community projects.

Obama, as our first urban president in many years, brings an understanding of the needs and importance of vital cities to regions that can't be understated.

He knows that cities are places that can spawn innovation and interaction among closely aligned institutions like universities and medical centers. That they more efficiently serve more people at less public infrastructure and maintenance expense than sprawling suburbs. That they still contain the industrial infrastructure that built this country and that those spaces can be redeployed to create the engines of production for green technology by retrofitting them for wind and solar manufacturing. That they are the hubs for new modes of transportation through the development of high-speed rail. 

He also has two very city-oriented appointees on his team. Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarret has been involved professionally in housing and finance in Chicago. Incoming HUD Secretary, Sean Donovan, is an extremely intelligent guy and provides Obama with another uniquely qualified person who comes with a deep understanding of the needs of cities.

Henry L. Taylor, director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo.

"Urban policy is going to be a significant component of Obamaism, and this bodes well. This will probably be reflected in the reinvention of HUD, greater collaboration among federal agencies and a transformation in federal – city relations.

This is good news for cities like Buffalo, but for the city to take advantage of the situation, I think we have to identify the top developmental priorities and formulate a strategy to link economic development to the regeneration of distressed communities.  Within this context, there are three areas of great promise.

1. Brownfield development and green industries—the numerous brownfields in the Buffalo-Niagara region could become green gold.  Many brownfields are located near or adjacent to distressed communities.  This creates a wonderful opportunity to link brownfield regeneration to community redevelopment.  Within this context, the Buffalo region is already carving out a niche in green industries. The key is to create a regional brownfield strategy that leads to synergistic development, rather than competition.  On this point, infrastructure initiatives ought to be tied to brownfield regeneration and bolstering the competitive edge of the city.

2.The Buffalo-Niagara region has a strong focus on knowledge-intensive industries, especially medical institutions and universities. This creates two interrelated opportunities for the regions. First, strategies, similar to UB’s 20/20 program, should be encouraged among the Meds and Eds to stimulate the development of quality, stable jobs and opportunities. Second, we must find creative ways to use the total institutions – Meds and Eds – from their purchasing power to intellectual prowess to work toward attacking the problem of distressed neighborhoods. The problem of urban distress is the most urgent problem facing the City and Meds and Eds can play a significant role in solving it.

3. The city needs to develop new and innovative approaches to battling neighborhood distress. The Obama administration will be looking to support innovative distressed neighborhood programs, such as the Harlem Project with its comprehensive approach to revitalization. "

Walter Simpson, co-founder of the Western New York Climate Action Coalition.

My hope is the Obama will focus so clearly and forcefully on climate change that Mayor Brown and other community leaders in local government, business, education, etc. will get off their duffs, develop climate actions plans and start addressing this problem.

I did not see the beginning of the green economy in the local project lists developed by the city and county.

Phil Wilcox, community affairs specialist with Local 97 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Last month, Empire State Development Chair Robert Wilmers reiterated a decades old challenge – we have few if any shovel ready sites in WNY available for development.  The main challenge is our industrial legacy leaving behind brownfields.The environmentally compromised sites have otherwise very valuable infrastructure: rail, truck routes, industrial sewers, and most importantly – electric transmission lines.  Liability scares off almost all developers.

Any green energy of other industrial development must have a site to locate with these transmission lines nearby – or spend in excess of $1 million dollars a mile to have them built – if you can get permission to site an electric line.  An example is the steel winds windmill project in Lackawanna – located on a brownfield near transmission lines.

Having major stimulus funds available and being hamstrung due to an inability to address the challenge of “no shovel ready sites” would be another lost opportunity for WNY.  These sites represent an enormous economic infrastructure need in WNY – each telling a tale of former prosperity up to and including the 1,600 acre Bethlehem site.

In the massive effort of restoring to “shovel ready” these multiple sites - drive the River Road from Buffalo to Niagara Falls – don’t skip Buffalo Avenue - there is another major opportunity.  Last Spring Senator Schumer was the keynote speaker at the Science Museum to highlight that the region had nearly the highest underrepresented unemployment in the country.  There exists a shelf-ready plan to train underrepresented individuals from brownfields impacted communities remediation skillsets. How could this not be running full throttle?

Readers, let's continue the dialogue.


A timely read

I've plugged Gristmill, the environmental blog, in the past, and this is an especially opportune time to check it out, given the pending appointments of Obama's environmental team.

A green museum


A lot of folks are rightfully raving over the Burchfield Penny Art Center that opened ten days ago, as well they should. I was among the thousands who visited the museum the opening weekend and it's a neat building filled with a lot of neat art. Even I realize that. Me, who considers Three Stooges films to be fine art.

Well, they are.

But I digress.

What I like best about the new museum is its green building design. Not many people in this town are building to LEED standards, but the museum has. Director Ted Pietrzak expects the building will receive a silver certificate the early part of next year from the U.S. Green Building Council.

"We'll be the first art museum in the state to be (LEED) certified," Pietrzak said.

Well, good for us.

What makes for a LEED museum?

In Burchfield Penny's case, it starts outdoors with a white roof that reflects sun and heat and a stormwater retention system that allows for absorption into the Scajaquada Creek ecosystem.

Burchfield_2 Indoors, there's lot of natural light and sophisticated systems to manage power consumption. There are water-saving features, including waterless urinals. Radiant heating. Recycled building materials have been used, including flooring.

Kudos to the Burchfield Penny board, Buffalo State College and the architects, Gwathmey Siegel, out of NYC.

What was the motivation to go LEED?

"We just believed it was the right thing to do," Pietrzak said.

Then there was the inspiration of Charles Burchfield, whose collection is the centerpiece of the museum.

"Burchfield was a naturalist. It seemed appropriate," Pietrzak said.

Next up on the LEED front is the ongoing construction of a Center for Information, Research and Community Programs at Daemen College. The 45,000-square-foot building, going up on Main Street, is going to be both green and high -ech. It should open in January.

Greening Buffalo - an interview

Last month I did a story contrasting green efforts by city governments in Niagara Falls and Buffalo. I also did a companion video report and blog post.

One of the key interviews I did for the story involved Sam Magavern, an instructor at the University at Buffalo Law School, co-author of "Greening Buffalo: What Local Governments Can Do" and a leader in the Partnership for the Public Good. The video above features a 13:47 invterview with Magavern. Good stuff if you're interested enough in the topic to sit through it.

Among the key points made by Magavern, in a series of telephone and video interviews about what's going on and not going on in Buffalo:

"I think we're still substantially behind most peer cities. If you look at a Milwaukee, a Cincinnati, they've got a lot more going on."

"We need to set measurable targets and set strategies to achieve them."

"There are a lot of things you can do that are low cost or actually save you money in the end."

Tomorrow I'll post a full-length interview with Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster.

Cities in green and Brown

The differing approaches in Buffalo and Niagara Falls in reaction to spiraling energy costs and other ramifications of climate change can be boiled down to this:

When I called Paul Dyster to talk about what Niagara Falls is doing, the mayor invited me up for what turned out to be a detailed, and ultimately exhausting, two-hour interview in which I finally had to plead "no mas." The man knows his stuff, and talks not in sound bites, not in sentences, but in complete paragraphs. Several at a time.

Don't believe me? Here's a video of a speech Dyster gave this summer to Business Gets Green.

Mayor Byron Brown, on the other hand, doesn't want to talk about what he is doing -- and not doing -- in Buffalo. Not with me. And not with some prominent greens like Walter Simpson who have tried to get an audience with him.

As a result of its mayor's respective attitudes, Niagara Falls has landed a plant to produce silicon used to make solar panels, while Buffalo is, well, washing the halls of City Hall with less abrasive cleaning solutions.

In addition to my story in Sunday's Buffalo News, I've complied links to additional resources for those of you who want to know more.

Let's start with Sam Magavern's report done with some of his U.B. law students for the Partnership for the Public Good, entitled "Greening Buffalo: What Local Governments Can Do." Magavern presents an abbreviated version of the recommendations in this story he wrote for Artvoice.

To learn with other cities are doing, start with the one-page action plan developed by the the Climate protection Center of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Magavern says Cincinnati's action plan is particularly relevant to a city like Buffalo. has ranked the nation's 50 greenest cities, although probably fewer than 20 really deserve kudos. Another outfit has done a readable narrative on the greenest of the green cities.

Newsweek has reported on a study by the Brookings Institute on how metropolitan regions can reduce their carbon footprint.

Finally, Gristmill is in the midst of reporting on what 15 regions across the nation are doing on the green front.

Read on.

A good first impression

Brian_reilly_3 I had my first in-depth interview Wednesday with Brian Reilly, the city's new commissioner of economic development. Seems like a sharp fellow. Definitely energetic.

What's to like:

He's cut his teeth elsewhere - Milwaukee and Cleveland.

He's got experience in green economic development.

And he's full of ideas.

What he said of particular interest:

He's added a focus on attracting companies to the city and helping those already here expand. Should help to make the city more business friendly.

He's talking to the other economic development players on a regular basis, folks like the IDAs and state Empire Development Corp.

He wants to cluster neighborhood investments, which would be a real departure from the scatter-shot approach that goes back at least as far as Jimmy Griffin.

He's trying to market brownfields in South Buffalo, including the old Republic Steel site, as a renewable energy and technology corridor. Also working with Lackawanna to include the Bethlehem Steel site. Selling points: lots of land and lake and highway access. And, I found out, home to a huge 42-inch water main capable of pumping as much water in a day as the rest of the city consumes. (Companies in the water-parched south and southwest, are you listening?)

All this said, it's one thing to be smart and full of ideas, another to be effective.

Does he have what it takes to succeed in the political waters of City Hall, to change its long-standing approach to economic development, which I'll oversimplify as "indiscriminate subsidies, often used as pork barrel."

I've spoken with some other folks who have had dealings with Reilly, and some of them, while they find him bright, said he sometimes comes off as overly defensive. That's a common criticism of the administration he works for. Here's hoping he's better at dealing with the rabble than some of his superiors.

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