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The Broken Regions of the North

Why we're meeting in Buffalo to talk about tomorrow

This week, a group of energetic and hopeful people came to Buffalo to see whether they can figure out how to make President Obama’s “stimulus” money a transformative force for the Rust Belt.

Artvoice will report on what was proposed, argued, challenged, and embraced at the summit, called Great Lakes Metros and the New Opportunity (June 18-19). Buffalo State College, where the meetings were held, will compile the talks and PowerPoints onto a Web site and may also make them available as a book. It’ll be a good book, full of color. It’ll contain the best thinking, circa June 2009, on how to address the long-festering challenges of all those metro regions on the south side of the Canadian border that have been losing people and jobs for the past 50 years.

The best news is that a new generation of activists and policy wonks is picking up the baton from an older generation of civic leaders—and doing so with some of the force that a new president is loaning, if obliquely, through his secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

But here’s the burning question:

Will the federal stimulus money be poured down the usual rat-holes, or will it be in any way useful as a tool to transform the failing Great Lakes metros?

Fast, cheap and…good?

The Obama team allowed themselves to be hammered on the need for metro-wide approaches rather than the tried-and-failed “urban policy” that has been in effect, without much real variation, through the past six presidencies.

When Obama was campaigning, regionalism, or metro-wide approaches, was a wonkish-sounding notion. The onset of the fiscal crisis in mid-2008 made regionalism urgent. It was a happy day indeed when policy folks, especially environmental activists, saw that the end had come for that Bush administration policy of letting billions and billions of dollars worth of sewer and clean-water infrastructure projects languish unfunded. There was plenty of talk, early on as the Obama policy team was coming together, of the need for new infrastructure spending.

Then came the unique historic advent of the economic crisis. It meant that suddenly, lots of interest groups had wish-lists—long wish-lists. The Keynesian reality means that lots of money has to get spent quickly if it’s going to put people back to work so that the US, and the world, too, escapes the economic downturn caused by the bursting of the Madoff-Bush-subprime bubble.

But we who organized the Great Lakes Metros conference saw danger as well as opportunity. Targeting special aid to cities through city halls, no matter which Rust Belt city that city hall happens to be in, has seen multiple billions of dollars result in nothing other than very expensive empty buildings with broken windows. Would new billions go the same route?

A very wise Canadian I know, one of the architects of the 1998 consolidation of Toronto with its surrounding suburbs, observes that it’s probably too much to expect that either of our respective federal governments would ever understand, truly understand, the need for this money to go for more than the short-term economic prod that the world economy needs.

“As the consultants say,” he said, “you can either get fast and cheap, or cheap and good, or good and fast, but you can’t get cheap, fast, and good all at once.”

“Good” money, to me, means money that comes with instructions—instructions to create integrated, regional management plans to buy the infrastructure, the green jobs, the green housing, and the tools for sustainability for these stressed regions. If the first dollars of the stimulus money don’t come with those instructions, then the next dollars should.

The message to Washington

The Buffalo meeting features two veteran former mayors, Bill Hudnut of Indianapolis and Bill Johnson of Rochester. Hudnut ran the consolidated, regionalized Indianapolis city-county government; Johnson was Rochester’s mayor for 12 years and then ran on a platform to create a regionalized government. Both these practitioners have a similar message to the theorists and wonks: Get going on restructuring governance in the Rust Belt.

It’s unlikely that the Obama administration is ever going to instruct individual municipal governments to go out of existence or to consolidate outright.

But is it too much to ask that all the new federal funds come with conditions?

The recent experience of Edmonton, Alberta is an interesting contrast with the 10-year-old success story of Toronto.

In Edmonton over the past two years, unlike in Toronto in 1998, there was no mashing together of governments. The 25 municipalities of the Edmonton metro area still exist, whereas in Toronto, consolidation was the occasion of great political suffering and complaints (10 years ago) about a gigantic government forming up at the expense of localism.

What is different now, however, is that in the Edmonton area, all the infrastructure decisions are made by a regional planning body. As infrastructure goes, so goes development; there’s a regional growth-management plan that all the little political bodies signed off on. So now, despite the oil boom that went bust, there isn’t what we have here in the Rust Belt, namely, self-destructive sprawl and hollowing-out of the central city.

In Toronto, of course, 10 years of life under unified regional or metro-wide government has created a Mecca for investment and immigration. Forcible top-down consolidation worked.

At this point, either way would work for me. Obama can use the carrot of stimulus money to get a metro result. What we’re going to talk about in Buffalo is how the Great Lakes cities can think about the opportunity, and not just the problem, of dealing with the broken windows and abandoned buildings that have resulted from 50 years of inside-the-municipality thinking.

Stay tuned. Important notions have come from here before. There is something of a generational interchange underway here, as the twenty-somethings of Great Lakes Urban Exchange (a conference co-sponsor) meet ex-mayors in their seventh and eighth decades and boomer wonks in their fifth and sixth.

We’d best act quickly, though. The stimulus money won’t last long. The collapse of the American automobile industry is not necessarily going to be followed by some immediate job-producing green-energy engine. The costs of reclaiming brownfields are steep and the process is long—it took us six years just to get eight wind turbines on a fraction of the Bethlehem Steel property—and finding re-use for brownfields ultimately requires that there be a market rationale. And because of the galloping economic and population growth of the Sunbelt, there is a serious chance that after the Congressional reapportionment that will occur in 2011, the Great Lakes region will not only lose Congressional representation, but will also becomes less politically relevant than it ever has been in American history.

The prospect of a hanging should, as Boswell said, concentrate our minds wonderfully. I hope we do seize the moment this week in Buffalo.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies, a sponsor of Great Lakes Metros and the New Opportunity, June 18-19 at Buffalo State’s Bulger Communications Building. For more information, visit

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