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Being Realistic About Canal Side

The public is investing over $154 million in redeveloping Canal Side and contributing many acres of prime waterfront land. Recently, the Buffalo Common Council voted unanimously that it would not transfer 13 acres to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation until ECHDC makes a community benefits agreement, or CBA, with the Canal Side Community Alliance. The Alliance is made up of some 40 community groups, led by the Coalition for Economic Justice, PUSH Buffalo, and the Buffalo Urban League.

The CBA is a flexible tool used successfully in many other cities, including Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, to ensure that public investments create public goods, not just private profits. In Buffalo, community groups have been asking ECHDC for a CBA for over a year now—in public forums, written comments, and face-to-face meetings.

Everyone agrees that it is crucial to be realistic with such a large public investment, especially when the state is flat broke and the region is reeling from the loss of quality jobs in manufacturing. But opinions vary on what it means to be realistic.

The Partnership for the Public Good has done extensive research on New York’s annual investment of over $6 billion in business subsidies and how that investment has been largely wasted. Based on that research, we think that nothing could be more pie-in-the-sky than to throw millions in subsidies at two large, out-of-state companies (Benderson and Bass Pro) and hope—without binding guarantees—that some benefits trickle down to the business owners, workers, and residents of Buffalo.

As currently planned, Canal Side will be a regional amenity, not a national tourist destination. This means that each business at Canal Side will be competing with existing businesses in the region. Each lunch or fishing rod sold at Canal Side will be one less lunch or fishing rod sold elsewhere in Buffalo or Cheektowaga. The jobs at Canal Side will not be “new.” Each job selling coffee or t-shirts there will mean one less job selling coffee or t-shirts elsewhere. If we subsidize national chains to compete with our local businesses, then profits will flow out of Buffalo, not into it.

Given these realities, there is no reason to subsidize Canal Side unless it is something special: unless the jobs pay enough to keep employees off welfare, the buildings are energy efficient, and most of the businesses are locally owned. The ECHDC’s project vision calls for green design and “locally owned businesses with living wage jobs,” but it lacks the mechanisms to make that vision real.

Thus far, the redevelopment of Canal Side has been a success—but only because the community fought hard for a quality project. The Canal Side Community Alliance is realistic enough to know that future success, too, will depend on the participation of an informed and engaged community.

Sam Magavern co-directs the Partnership for the Public Good, a partnership of over 75 community groups working in the public interest.

Sam Magavern, Co-director, Partnership for the Public Good

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