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Retakes By The Lakes

Experts gather at Buff State to re-imagine the Rust Belt

Last week, a summit called Great Lakes Metros and the New Opportunity aimed to answer the perpetual Rust Belt question: How can Great Lakes cities reinvent themselves? Held last Thursday and Friday at Buffalo State College’s Bulger Communication Center, speakers and panelists were brought in from all over the northeast to address a wide variety of issues, from green jobs and regional governance to taking advantage of stimulus money and augmenting a Rust Belt presence in Washington, D.C.

The conference was sponsored by: GLUE, a volunteer-based coalition that aims to transform and empower the Great Lakes watershed; PPG, 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.

Below is a selection of interviews with some of the speakers who talked about projects/ideas/crackpot schemes that have worked in their cities ... and just might work here, too.

Jean Lowe

Jean Lowe

Jean Lowe is the President of the Greater Rochester Housing Partnership. For eight years, she has headed the organization and supported its goal to facilitate the development of affordable housing in and around the city of Rochester.

Artvoice: Being in housing, what do you think are some of the best programs in Rochester to come out of the Block Grant?

Jean Lowe: Our organization is involved in running Home Rochester, which is a program to turn vacant properties into home ownership opportunities, it uses block grant funding, as well as a lot of other sources, such as the city of Rochester, local banks, enterprise corporations and neighborhood based organizations that act as lenders.

AV: Do you feel the program has really turned some neighborhoods around?

JL: Absolutely. It doesn’t work in every neighborhood, but in many neighborhoods where it’s been working for a number of years, we’ve done a number of houses on the street, so as you drive down that street you get a sense that the neighborhood has stabilized and that the prosperity values are increasing. We can see that imperially because houses that sold in 2000 for fifty or fifty-five [thousand], now that we’ve renovated it, sell for maybe sixty-five or seventy. It doesn’t sound like a huge increase, but in a weak market that’s a significant uptake. So that’s increased tax revenue for the community and property values for the home owners.

AV: Has this improvement been bringing people back to those neighborhoods?

JL: It’s hard to measure where the people come from. For the most part I think we are selling to renters who are already in the neighborhood and want to stay, and they’re turning from renters into home owners.

AV: Do you help such renters get into home ownership?

JL: We make sure that they end up in a mortgage that is prime, not predatory. So fix market rate, thirty year, not forty. We often are able to match them with some closing cost assistance and down payment assistance, so we are very careful about what mortgage product the person gets in. So there’s private financing through mortgage, the buyer needs bring some equity, not a huge amount, but some and each house has a subsidy, that comes from various sources, such as federal, State and some banks.

AV: Why do you think Buffalo has such a hard time setting up such programs with its Block Grant?

JL: I don’t really follow Buffalo Politics but I will tell you what works in Rochester: the ability to coordinate across groups that are trying to reach the same ends. We’ve designed and implemented programs collaboratively. Under the leadership of Rochester there are a number of non-profit organizations that are either neighborhood based or stretch across the entire community, and the city for many years used block grant funds to invest directly in paying operating costs, and building capacity of those organizations. Now the organizations are able to undertake develop work on their own, and the city has taken its block grant recourses into actually funding development as oppose to capacity building. So these organizations are earning developer fees, are economically sustainable models now, which is an important switch.

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Miquela Craytor

Miquela Craytor

Miquela Craytor is the executive director of Sustainable South Bronx.

Artvoice: Tell us a bit about Sustainable South Bronx.

Miquela Craytor: the organization runs several programs, the majority of which are green job training programs, and these programs are geared to low income individuals who face numerous barriers to employment, most of our students are on public assistance, and about thirty percent of our students were formally incarcerated.

AV: What are some specific programs that have shown significant improvement to the area and the people involved?

MC: A lot of the programs involve what we call green infrastructure management, and to basically start to manage and restore urban areas that have been disinvested. So in terms of that, part of our work entails rejuvenating the south Bronx, such as planting, cultivating, pruning and watering trees. We’ve also been working on restoring the Bronx River – Removing invasive species, planting native plants, all the things that lead to a cleaner more sustainable Bronx River area. We also partner with the city parks department to do enhanced maintenance on specific parks, and these exercises integrate into the training programs. The outcome are students who not only gain tangible skills in these green collar fields but also have skills that lead to employment. So part of the training goes beyond learning how to prune a tree or installing a green roof, and give skills that help retain jobs. So a lot of soft skills: showing up to work on time, managing yourself, working with others.

AV: What are some the barriers that Sustainable South Bronx faces?

MC: I think the largest barriers are the traditional barriers that affect any particular group. Having lots of demands and not having all the capacity to fulfill the larger work. And to face the barriers to employment there are a lot of social challenges that remain. So our work is really premised on giving them skills out in the field, but there are still a lot of challenges that they have in their personally lives that our programming doesn’t really address, so our challenge is to connecting our students, while in the program, to other supportive entities that can perhaps give additional guidance to our students.

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William Johnson

As mayor of Rochester for 12 years, William Johnson accomplished a lot. But one of the pet projects he is most proud of is the Neighborhood Empowerment Teams.

Each team worked as an offshoot of City Hall and focused on quality of life issues for individual neighborhoods, like reducing urban blight, nuisance and criminal activities. There were six centers in communities throughout the city and permanent staff in each building included city code inspectors and uniformed officers. Often, the centers worked together with existing local organizations like block clubs and neighborhood watches to prevent crime and vandalism. The centers hosted evening meetings to discuss what was going on in their areas and created youth leadership teams to engage young people in community service early on. There was also a citizen police academy for residents to support uniformed officers. “There was an ease of communication, an extra sets of eyes,” Johnson says. “It also created a powerful feedback mechanism.”

Johnson believes in valuing the neighborhood. By empowering people in a smaller radius, it helps them to become invested in what happens around them, not only in their small area, but city-wide. Neighborhoods thrived and citizens felt more connected to government. Critics felt the program was unfocused, inefficient and that communication was actually decreased by taking code officers out of City Hall. Although homicide rates are lower now than when Johnson was in office, he urges critics to look at the whole picture. There is increased vandalism. vacancy and neighborhoods are being devalued left and right. “Cities constantly try to balance their efforts,” Johnson argues. “It was the right time for this project.”

Under the current administration in Rochester, the program is largely defunct or has been given a new name with new priorities. Johnson feels it isn’t a priority for them, but would like to see the program restrengthened. “Get what you can while you can,” he says. “If you create initiatives, you have to sustain them.”

Johnson, Rochester’s first black mayor, served from 1993 to 2005. He is currently a professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology.

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David Cowgill

David Cowgill

There is much that has to be done to improve the health of the Great Lakes and its watersheds. Years of industrial abuse have polluted the lakes and its rivers to their breaking points. Ever heard stories about Lake Erie catching on fire? That’s not legend. It’s a fact. Cuyahoga River, 1969.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office – under the direction of David Cowgill, its program manager – is doing its part to clean up, restore and preserve the Great Lakes. Cowgill and his team are currently developing plans to clean up sediment, restore habitats and restore natural shorelines in the Buffalo River. But what might be a good model is a successful project his office executed in Michigan in 2005, the first contaminated site to be cleaned up under the Great Lakes Legacy Act.

Residents in Trenton, Mich., just south of Detroit had long dubbed a bay on the Detroit River in their community the “Black Lagoon.” The embayment was polluted with oil, mercury, lead, zinc and PCBs – in other words, industrial sludge. Cowgill’s office facilitated getting grants for the clean-up and shoreline restoration. Once the water was clear, the City of Trenton gave a grant to build a small, floating marina, the embayment was renamed Ellias Cove and it took on a new, vibrant life. “Local leadership is so important,” Cowgill says. “Working with sources to make it happen is so key to what we do.”

Cowgill says part of the success in Trenton and in other cities like Chicago, Toledo and Green Bay has been cooperation with local nonprofits and nature preservation organizations. “They’re just looking for opportunities for restoration,” he says. “Hopefully we can help them along.”

These days, Cowgill is watching Congress’ budget hearings very carefully. There’s an opportunity to double funding coming into the Great Lakes in 2010 through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. There is a $475 million budget proposed and Cowgill claims there is very strong support for it to pass. If it does, it will mean a renewed interest from Washington, D.C., in cleaning up and preserving the Great Lakes.

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Todd Scott

Todd Scott

Todd Scott is the Detroit Greenways Coordinator for the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance, an organization dedicated to the planning and building of new trails and greenways within Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park.

Artvoice: What exactly do you do?

TS: We have a bunch of non-profits that are developing greenways; we have ten under development in Detroit. And we are trying to work together as a coalition, and my role is to bring the groups together and come up with common solutions to common problems.

AV: What bad habits do you think helped to create this overabundance of Gray space in the Great Lakes cities?

TS: We’ve all lost our manufacturing base, so we have a huge amount of unused factories, and un-used residential – forty square miles of land of Detroit is abandoned or vacant land right now.

AV: How do you think Green space will help this?

TS: It helps in a couple of ways, it helps to improve existing communities we have now and try to retain the people, while taking advantage of the well designed street grid that we have. Its also an opportunity to take care of some of this vacant land and convert it into greenways, and make good use of it as green space.

AV: Have you seen any progress as of yet?

TS: Yeah, tremendous progress. We have a river walk green way that is in construction, 75 percent of the first half of it is completed; they’ve raised over 100 million dollars to get that done in a matter of just a few years. And the amount of use on it is tremendous. It’s absolutely full, so much so that you can’t even ride a bike on it on weekends. With so many people using it, it’s just been an absolutely great thing. We’re seeing a lot of positives coming out of the greenways we have on the ground right now.

AV: What are some of the inhibitors you’ve had to, and still have to, tackle to get some Green space work done?

TS: One of the big ones is that the city of Detroit is challenged in respect to resources, so they don’t have the staff to lead the efforts to get these greenways built. They don’t have a staff to cut the grass and maintain them, so its up to our coalition to come up with solution so that this could work in Detroit.

AV: Has the city shown any interest in providing some assistance to greenways?

TS: Oh sure, they are very interested, and their apologetic that they can’t, there’s only so much they can do.

AV: What are some of things the city can do?

TS: They’ve helped us a lot with planning. We’ve putting together a greenway plan for seventy miles of trails and greenways across the city of Detroit: Coordinating with the mass transit system, connecting up the neighborhoods with the schools and jobs and business centers. And they’ve been helpful getting that done, getting it through city council. And with the leadership from the mayor’s office, we’re started to get that put together and on the ground.

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John Maggiore

John Maggiore

John Maggiore is the policy advisor for NYS Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo.

Artvoice: Why have you come to this conference?

JM: The Attorney General was invited to speak on his government consolidation bill, and I representing the office here today.

AV: During your presentation you noted that Erie County has over a thousand governments. How do you think this came to be?

JM: Well the history across the State has to been localizing problem solving to different governmental problems. It’s a history that began when there was areas of the state, including areas of Erie County, that were so remote that a more regional or centralized entity was not the most efficient or effective way to deliver services. The proliferation of special districts and governmental entities, that were created to address particular concerns such as lighting or water, really began to start around World War II. But even since then, the world has shrunk, Erie County has shrunk – the whole idea that there are remote parts of Erie County doesn’t even ring true today. The old solution has sort of outlived its usefulness. Not in all cases, there are certainly some special districts that make a lot of sense... but Erie county has over a thousand governments in state that has over ten thousand.

AV: How do you think the new bill proposed by Attorney General Cuomo will combat this ‘institutional inertia’, as you put it?

JM: There’s a lot of energy here in Erie County for stream lining government, making government more efficient and effective, and that energy is looking for an outlet. The effort that it takes to consolidate special districts, villages, and towns is so difficult and convoluted, that while it is possible, it’s not practical. And for that effort to begin from citizens under current law, it’s so daunting it’s not a practical outlet. So what our bill does is it streamlines the process. So if citizens want their government, be it a special district, a village or town, merged or dissolved they can initiate the process by collecting signatures, and they then charge the entity or entities to come up with a plan.

AV: So it bolsters grass root movements for such change.

JM: Correct. It also makes it easier for the towns or counties to start that. Even if towns or villages want to start the process under existing law, the laws are so convoluted and complicated that it’s even impractical for the towns themselves.

AV: So the bill is a way of cutting the red tape inhibiting such change?

JM: Yes, exactly.

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Phil Kidd

Phil Kidd

Phil Kidd is a community organizer from the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collective; a professional community-organizing project that operates citywide in the city of Youngstown, Ohio.

Artvoice: What brought you to the Great Lakes Metros and the New Opportunity Summit?

PK: I’m here at the conference this week to discuss a little bit about what we’re doing in Youngstown, Ohio and how that may translate into larger communities, like Buffalo.

AV: What do you think your organization has accomplished so far?

PK: Youngstown has a very weak history of organizing community development capacity. So our organization, which is twenty-five, almost thirty, years removed from the collapse of the still industry, has entered the scene to work on everything from neighborhood building initiatives, to policy, to vacant property strategy, to legislation. So we do any and everything to support the spin off of a community development corporation that would work on a city-wide scale, while basing policy from a number of the best progressive initiatives from many cities in the united states.

AV: and how long have you guys been around?

PK: We’ve only been on the ground for little over a year. We’ve been moving very, very quickly, and the community development corporation will get live on August 1st.

AV: What do you think a bigger city could barrow from you guys?

PK: I think there are a few things. One of which is our collaboration with government. In the sense that, in our situation, what we do is out of necessity. We’ve committed to being a smaller community and our planning process is geared towards rightsizing our neighborhoods, so that’s lead to a very strong collaboration between the civic base and city hall. So those models, from a government or consolidation of service standpoint, those are things that larger communities can learn from, and also more importantly, we can do almost anything we want on the ground. So if it’s a really progressive deconstruction program or a question of how we deal with legislation, it’s almost an absolute incubator. We’ve created a situation where almost anything goes, and so you come to Youngstown to try almost any initiative that you want to try.

AV: Do you think Buffalo could make such a situation in specific neighborhoods?

PK: From what I gathered this weekend, I would certainly say that there are certain areas that lend that opportunity to them.

AV: I know that People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo have been working in such areas.

PK: I would think that PUSH is the vehicle in which you could work to that end. And actually our relationship with PUSH is pretty strong, because of the fact we speak a lot of the same language. We are feeding off each other as far as information and knowledge. [This situation] transcends Buffalo, it transcends Youngstown obviously, and the issues are similar in every Great Lake and Rust Belt city. So how do we share this knowledge? Because its all there and we have to move now.

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