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Rust Belt Renaissance

Activists and policymakers from around the Great Lakes gather to share homegrown solutions to Rust Belt problems

Local attorney Sam Magavern will talk about community-based development strategies.

How do you take the rust out of the Rust Belt? It’s a question politicians and policymakers have been asking themselves for years. Now, with a new administration in the White House and stimulus money at the ready, local lawmakers and nonprofits are looking for ways to funnel some much-needed capital into revitalizing Great Lakes cities.

There has been much discussion of how Western New York will benefit from the federal stimulus package, passed in February. As the third poorest city in the country, Buffalo might be expected to get a large slice of the pie. But that depends on whether local lawmakers and nonprofits can court federal and state governments, convince them that the region is prepared to use stimulus money well. Recently, the mayors of Buffalo and Niagara Falls collaborated to compile a list of shovel-ready projects to show that the area is ripe for improvement and just needs the funding to get started.

Critics wonder whether lawmakers, both locally and at the state level, are all talk, making promises based on stimulus money that they may not actually get. Others worry that Albany will divvy up the state’s stimulus award in favor of New York City, leaving Western New York ignored once again.

A summit called “Great Lakes Metros and the New Opportunity: Remaking Policy and Practice in a Time of Transformation” aims to address these concerns. Held Thursday, June 18 and Friday, June 19 at Buffalo State College, the conference hosts a series of speakers and panels that will delve into the current condition of the Rust Belt. Organizers of the conference want to rethink the way federal money is spent. Federal priorities are shifting and the organizations sponsoring this conference want to influence that policy change. They see these billions of dollars as a way to revitalize neglected older cities, like those in the Great Lakes region.

Courting stimulus money isn’t an easy task. The Obama administration is looking for shovel-ready projects that can be undertaken and completed quickly to jolt the economy out of its current recession. Sam Magavern, co-director at Partnership for the Public Good, one of the summit’s co-sponsors, feels these shovel-ready projects don’t always benefit cities. Often these projects consist of building roads and fixing bridges in remote areas, but he wants to encourage policymakers to invest stimulus money into our already developed cores. “What we’re trying to do is develop a more effective Great Lakes voice in all these discussions,” he says. “We want to get policymakers’ attention with our unique needs and goals.”

The goal of the conference is threefold: to identify ways to filter federal stimulus money into Great Lakes cities; to develop policy that nurtures the region and helps urban areas grow into sustainable units; and to harness and strengthen a collective Rust Belt voice. “We’re trying to go for both a measure of nitty gritty practicality and another measure of envisioning where can we take all this, how we are going to engage in a policy discussion going forward,” says Aaron Bartley, executive director of PUSH Buffalo, who will be on a panel discussing neighborhood stabilization programs.

The impetus for the conference came out of a meeting between Bartley and Sarah Szurpicki of Great Lakes Urban Exchange, when both were at a pre-stimulus, post-Obama election think tank meeting in Washington, D.C. “We all saw the need for a conversation to happen in a Great Lakes city, rather than D.C.,” Bartley says. But when the stimulus bill was passed in February, local lawmakers and development organizations saw an even greater opportunity to organize and figure out a way to siphon stimulus money into the Rust Belt.

“Right now, we have a unique opportunity with a new administration who is open to figuring out how we can make the federal government work for us,” Szurpicki says. “It’s been 50 years since our nation has really prioritized the health of cities, especially in the Great Lakes region.”

A lot of ground will be covered in the two-day conference at Buffalo State College’s Bulger Communications Center, and organizers are expecting up to 100 participants from a variety locations and backgrounds.

When planning the panels, Szurpicki made an effort to include numerous perspectives—a community organizer, someone involved in policy research, a government representative—to create an opportunity for an effective conversation. “My special interest is to bring together people who aren’t going to have a conversation otherwise,” she says. “I’m really excited about seeing the panels represent some really diverse perspectives.”

Highlights of the summit include a panel on Friday morning with William Johnson, former mayor of Rochester, and William Hudnut, former mayor of Indianapolis, who will discuss encouraging regional and metropolitan governance. New York State Assemblymember Sam Hoyt will speak about high-speed rail opportunities Friday morning, and Jennifer Bradley, a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution, will present a report entitled “Metropolitan Action for a Metropolitan Nation” on Thursday evening.

Anthony Armstrong, program director for the Local Initiative Support Commission, a member of Partnership for the Public Good and a self-described policy wonk, thinks Buffalo is a perfect location for a conference of this scope. “Buffalo is a microcosm of other distressed cities across America,” he says. “We contain all of those opportunities that are present in other cities, to an expanded degree.”

It’s hard to make generalizations about Great Lakes cities, since all are in different stages of decline and redevelopment. But what they all have in common is industrial blight resulting in faltering economies. Some have bounced back more successfully than others. Part of the goal of the summit is networking, so that people from this “megaregion” can share what has worked for their communities. “Not all ideas have to be new ideas to be successful,” Armstrong says. “We need to beg, borrow, and steal ideas from other places.”

For exaample, Rochester rehabilitates nearly 100 houses a year, compared with Buffalo’s seven or eight, through a housing partnership that comprises governmental, nonprofit, and for-profit agencies. Cleveland has reinvented itself as a producer of wind power. Milwaukee has unique brownstone redevelopment and urban farming programs in place. Pittsburgh has reimagined its economy, focusing on the biotech industry. Chicago has revamped its waterfront into a tourist destination and its downtown into an economic hotspot. Buffalo has its own success stories to share with activists and policymakers from other cities: the redensification of the Elmwood Village and new signs of life on Grant Street, its newfound urban gardening movement, and a waterfront with great potential for development.

But all of these Great Lakes cities still face innumerable challenges in terms of depressed neighborhoods, vacant homes, suffering local economies, and industrial blight. “I don’t know if there’s a city that looks like the one I want to see,” Szurpicki says. “I want our cities to be models of sustainability and green living. Having room to grow means we have room to experiment. We have a unique opportunity to reimagine what a city should look like because of our challenges.”

Armstrong feels that Buffalo is in a unique position to embrace and promote change because of its shortcomings. “When you look at Buffalo statistics, we unfortunately show up on all those ‘worst of’ lists and our national reputation reflects that,” he says. “It’s only when you really get into the community and see vitality and excitement being generated that it becomes, ‘If it can happen in Buffalo, it can happen here.’ This is an opportunity to really spread the message of citizen initiative.”

The strengths of all these cities—and Buffalo in particular—and their greatest possibility for change lies with its grassroots organizations. Bartley feels Buffalo must stay in the loop when it comes to regional advocacy efforts, which is why connections to organizations in other cities is so important.

“We have some of the most dramatic problems we can showcase,” Magavern says. “We have them in a form that’s about as visible as you can get. But we also have some good things going on here like grassroots community redevelopment organizations doing block-by-block renewal on the West Side and working with inner city churches on the East Side. We have some good models to showcase.”

The sponsors of the conference include Great Lakes Urban Exchange, a volunteer-based coalition that aims to transform and empower the Great Lakes watershed; the Partnership for the Public Good, a local think tank focused on revitalization; the Northeast-Midwest Institute, a research and policy development-based nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.; and Buffalo State College’s Center for Economic and Policy Studies (whose director is AV columnist Bruce Fisher).

“Each of our organizations really brings a different set of expertise,” Szurpicki says. “It will be reflected in the diversity of panels and the qualifications of speakers is excellent.”

As for the question of another Great Lakes Metros Summit in the future, Szurpicki isn’t ruling out the possibility. “I can’t imagine that the need for a more unified voice in this region is going to go away,” she says.

Armstrong is only looking forward to positives out of this year’s summit. “We don’t want the stimulus money to be wasted,” he says. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We want to make sure it hits the streets in the proper way.”

Registration is $25 for both days. For complete program information, visit

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