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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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These guys are the real deal

Want to know how to start to solve the city's problems? Read the story Mark Sommer had on Sunday's front page about PUSH Buffalo.

Long story short, Aaron Bartley, Eric Walker and Co. organize to give people a meaningful voice about what happens in their neighborhood and how public dollars are spent towards that end.

It's bottom up -- and effective.

No pointless press conferences.

No playing footsies with the politicians.

No insiders sitting around in a room deciding what's best for other people.

Nope. Good old-fashioned community organizing, something we need a lot more of in this town.

"What makes us unique is that, unlike a lot of groups that are doing development or community-based work, we're interested in building power for people in the neighborhood. That's not something you see very often," said Eric Walker, PUSH's organizing director.

"For us, power is community control of resources."

Reminds me of something Dr. Winston O'Boggie once said.

As an aside, I'm up to my eyeballs wrapping up a package of stories Pat Lakamp and I are working on about the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. Consider them "Son of One Sunset." The stories will run over the course of the next couple of weeks. I've got to cut back on my blogging in the meantime to focus on getting my portion of the work done, but will try and post a little something each day.

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

Brother, can you spare a BlackBerry?

City Hall spares no expense to fight poverty. At least when it comes to the care and feeding of its bureaucracy.

For years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been grousing about the degree to which City Hall uses block grant funds to pay the salaries and benefits of city employees, including those in the two major economic development agencies.

It turns out that over the past few years, the anti-poverty funds have also paid for BlackBerrys issued to 15 employees of the agencies.

BlackberryFor the uninitiated, BlackBerrys and iPhones are the Cadillacs of the cell phone family. They do a lot more than cell phones. In the case of BlackBerrys, which are used more for business purposes, they enable users to, among other things, send and receive e-mail and access the Internet. For a more detailed description, go here.

No doubt they're nifty gizmos. The question is whether so many economic development bureaucrats need them. Rochester and Syracuse somehow get by without them. 

To his credit, Brian Reilly, the city's economic development czar, has cut the cost of the service since coming on board. And I don't doubt his contention that BlackBerrys make some employees more productive, although I think the head of the city's white-collar union might be interested to know that some of his members are working unpaid overtime to send out and receive hundreds of e-mails.

But the question remains: Is spending up to $30,000 a year a good use of anti-poverty funds?

Delaware District Council Member Mike LoCurto, who heads the committee that reviews the block grant budget submitted by Mayor Byron Brown, thinks it is not.

"It's not the way that money should be spent," he said. "We're the third-poorest city of our size in the nation and there's too much (block grant) money spent on administration. That money should be on
the street."

Oh, it's in the street, Mike. Just happens to be in the purse or pocket of city employees making the rounds.

LoCurto also isn't happy that the Brown administration didn't respond to a sweeping block grant information request the Council made until members voted March 13 to approve the latest budget. Included in the stack of documents was the list of who receives Blackberrys and cell phones. I obtained the list, had a hunch that the BlackBerrys were paid for with block grant funds, and started asking questions.


LoCurto acknowledges it's too late for the Council to do anything about the BlackBerry budget for this year. But the city's block grant spending program still has to pass muster with HUD. Perhaps the feds will take out the eraser. HUD certainly has found enough other fault with the way the city is running the program.

"A radically new approach" to fighting poverty

Drive down just about any major thoroughfare on the East Side and you see economic desolation. Yeah, there are a few pockets of success, but they are the exception. The urban landscape of, say, Genesee Street, is one part Beirut, one part Western ghost town. Haunting and depressing.

There are a lot of reasons for it, among them what Michael Porter, a professor at the Harvard Business School, believes is this nation's misguided policies when it comes to revitalizing inner-city economies. Porter maintains that wealth creation, through investment and business development are what ill turn around the nation's poorest neighborhoods.

Let's hear from him:

As inner cities continue to deteriorate, the debate on how to aid them grows increasingly divisive. The efforts of the past several decades to revitalize inner cities have failed. The time has come to recognize that revitalizing the inner cities will require a radically new approach.

While social programs will continue to play a critical role in meeting human needs and improving education, they must support--and not undermine--a coherent economic strategy. The question we should be asking is how inner-city-based businesses and nearby employment opportunities for inner city residents can proliferate and grow.

A sustainable economic base can be created in the inner city, but only as it has been created elsewhere: through private, for-profit initiatives and investment based on economic self-interest and genuine competitive advantage.

In short, getting inner-city economies back on their feet requires identifying and exploiting their competitive advantages, Porter says. Economic development planners have done this for the region, but not for the inner-city.

Inner-cities have four main advantages, Porter says:

  • Strategic location.
  • Local market demand.
  • Human resources.
  • Integration with regional clusters of companies linked by customer or supplier.

How can it work? A laundry service around the corner from the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus would be able to provide superior customer service and quicker turn around time than one based out, say, of Amherst.

Suffice to say the politicians and bureaucrats who control economic development in the city don't subscribe to Porter's theories.

Come to think of it, just what theories are they working off?

Since publishing "The Competitive Advantage of the Inner City," Porter has established a non-profit to help regions plan for attracting self-sustainable business, connecting entrepreneurs to capital and training business leaders who can create wealth in the communities that need it most.

You should check out his Putting the Inner-City First: Making the Case for an Inner-City Economic Development Policy.  And here's a piece he did for Inc. Magazine. Some provocative brain food.

And maybe, just maybe, someone in a position to get this guy, or someone from his shop, on a plane to come here and talk to us should get out his or her check book. What do we have to lose, except our status as one of the nation's poorest cities?

This is not to say that anyone should simply buy into Porter's approach lock, stock and barrel. In fact, his thinking about the role of community based organizations isn't exactly progressive. And he can come off as too dismissive of the importance of social welfare programs. 

But his major point - the need to create wealth in poor communities - is a keeper.

(I'd be remiss in not acknowledging the assistance of my daughter Erin, a political science major at Swarthmore College, in developing this blog post. She's smart on this stuff.)

Poverty 101 in the nation's third-poorest city

Poverty is Buffalo's No. 1 problem -- as evidenced by our ranking as the nation's third-poorest city.

What to do about it? Well, Mayor Byron Brown appointed a deputy mayor a year ago to answer just that question, but we're still waiting for an answer

William julius wilson No matter. Today and tomorrow I will delve into the issue, starting with a look at the root causes of urban poverty through the lens of Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, regarded as a pre-eminent expert, who heads the university's Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Center.

Wilson draws on research, rather than dogma, in concluding that the reasons for the kind of sustained poverty we see in cities like Buffalo don't fit neatly into the analysis offered by liberals (the legacy of racism) or conservatives (ghetto culture).

Wilson has a new book, "More Than Just Race," which was recently reviewed by the New York Times and Slate. 

The Times review said Wilson makes a "convincing case that both institutional and systemic impediments and cultural deficiencies keep poor blacks from escaping poverty and the ghetto."

The systemic impediments include both the legacy of racism and dramatic economic changes that have fallen with disproportionate severity on poor blacks.

State-enforced racial discrimination created the ghetto: in the early 20th century local governments separated the races into segregated neighborhoods by force of law, and later, whites used private agreements and violent intimidation to keep blacks out of white neighborhoods.

Worst, and most surprising of all, the federal government played a major role in encouraging the racism of private actors and state governments. Until the 1960s, federal housing agencies engaged in racial red­lining, refusing to guarantee mortgages in inner-city neighborhoods; private lenders quickly followed suit.

Meanwhile, economic and demographic changes that had nothing to do with race aggravated the problems of the ghetto.

Encouraged by recently built highways and inexpensive real estate, middle-class residents and industry left the inner city to relocate to roomier and less costly digs in the suburbs during the ’60s and ’70s. Those jobs that remained available to urban blacks further dwindled as companies replaced well-paid and unionized American workers with automation and cheaper overseas labor.

The new economy produced most of its jobs at the two poles of the wage scale: high-paying jobs for the well educated and acculturated (lawyers, bankers, management consultants) and low-paying jobs for those with little education or skills (fast food, telemarketing, janitorial services).

And, as Wilson argued in an earlier book, “The Declining Significance of Race,”the success of the civil rights movement inadvertently made things worse for the most disadvantaged.

After federal law prohibited housing discrimination, successful blacks began to leave the inner city for many of the same reasons whites did: in search of better schools, less crime, lower taxes and a leafier landscape. This left the least well off behind in ghettos that were both more socially isolated and more economically depressed than ever.

Today many ghetto residents have almost no contact with mainstream American society or the normal job market. As a result, they have developed distinctive and often dysfunctional social norms.

The work ethic, investment in the future and deferred gratification make no sense in an environment in which legitimate employment at a living wage is impossible to find and crime is an everyday hazard (and temptation).

Men, unable to support their families, abandon them; women become resigned to single motherhood; children suffer from broken homes and from the bad examples set by both peers and adults. And this dysfunctional behavior reinforces negative racial stereotypes, making it all the harder for poor blacks to find decent jobs.

Concludes The Times review:

The urban poor need remedies that judges cannot order: public and private investment to create jobs that pay a living wage, training to help them learn new skills and understand the job market, and most of all a chance to move into racially and economically integrated neighborhoods where there are better opportunities and healthier cultural norms.

Addressing urban poverty is where I'll pick up tomorrow, focusing on the need for a healthy dose of capitalism in the nation's inner-cities, as prescribed by Michael Porter.