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City of Magic, City of Light

In Cleveland this weekend, community activists, pols, and academics will re-imagine the Rust Belt

This weekend in Cleveland, the Great Lakes Urban Exchange is bringing 100 thinkers, activists, elected officials, and wonks to kick around ideas about how one of the richest but most challenged Great Lakes cities can turn itself around. It’s going to be a three-day sequence of sessions on the “urban laboratory” that is underway in Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Toledo, and other towns that are struggling with the prospect of global economic irrelevancy. The participants are going to describe their experiences with policy innovations like land-banking, with block-by-block reinvestment in distressed neighborhoods, with business plans that work, and with policy initiatives that still need work. The program is noticeably focused on how community-based organizations and small-scale investors are achieving increments of success in places that have been synonymous with economic distress for more than a generation.

The program is also notable in a way that Buffalo should pay close attention to: Nobody is showing up to share a success story about how the advent of a Bass Pro or any other big-box retailer has engineered a turnaround for a neighborhood, a town or a metro area. Why? Because there are no such success stories.

The cities of America’s north coast have been losing population and internal coherence for decades. Of all the metros in all the Great Lakes states, only Indianapolis is actually governed as a metro. Every other one is experiencing what Cornell geographer Rolf Pendall calls “sprawl without growth,” and features a hollowed-out central city surrounded by a patchwork quilt of independently governed suburbs that spread ever more expensively and ever farther from the urban core thanks to the dimwit state governors who keep giving them road and sewer money. Yet each of these metros’ anchor cities has a university, a cathedral, a central library, a city hall, a big sports arena or two, museums, and concert halls, because since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 until at least the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974, these cities anchored and dominated their metros. Now in the fourth decade since depopulation, deindustrialization, the Rehnquist Supreme Court’s decision against metropolitan school districts in Millikin, and the inept urban policies of each American presidency, there is another new pro-city movement afoot.

The hopeful, the engaged, and the talented are the new crop that will convene in Cleveland. They take heart from the sensible work of the analysts at the Brookings Institution, which recently published a report entitled “Hubs of transformation: leveraging the Great Lakes research complex for energy innovation,” which is about all those universities, mainly public, that keep pumping out intellectual capital and selling it to the world. They are emboldened by their own stories, in Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Flint, Akron, and even Detroit, that most troubled of metros. Small-scale investors and neighborhood activists, cooperating with folks from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the Gamaliel Foundation, Greater Ohio Policy Center, the Tides Center, the Rockefeller and Surdna foundations, and other groups, have detailed case studies about how there has been headway made against the negative trends in these towns.

There is, though, an area the size of Buffalo, more than 40 square miles, pretty much abandoned in Detroit. Another recent survey says that Detroit, Toledo, and Youngstown are all still suffering double-digit unemployment and severe housing devaluation because their car-centered economies are not recovering. (Meanwhile, this week’s news from Wall Street is that investment banks large and small there are hiring thousands.) A shadow overhangs these Rust Belt towns—the shadow of a Chinese workforce that is more than twice the size of the US population, a workforce that is the target of that Wall Street investment, but a workforce whose average wage is so low that the notion of a community benefit agreement, or of a “living wage,” much less a union-scale “prevailing wage,” could only be seen as fantasies.

Yet there is hope in Cleveland. Smart hope.

There should be some smart hope here in Upstate New York, too. Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse have weathered the calamities of the past 30 months reasonably well compared to peer metros. Albany is close to finishing up a budget that will continue to transfer over a billion more dollars into the Buffalo metro than the Buffalo metro pays in state taxes and fees. And there is hope among advocates of “smart growth” that Governor Paterson will sign a bill sponsored by Assembly Democrat Sam Hoyt of Buffalo and three state senators from Long Island, Brooklyn, and the Hudson Valley.

The bill is about infrastructure. If Paterson signs it, all state agencies, authorities, and public corporations that spend a nickel on infrastructure will have to adhere to smart growth criteria. They’re going to have to form advisory committees that include environmental and community stakeholders, and to issue written smart growth impact statements. It is far short of a command to town governments to eschew go-it-alone planning; it is not a bill to create an urban growth boundary around Albany, Binghamton, Syracuse, Rochester, or Buffalo; it is not a bill to create empowered metropolitan planning organizations. Nevertheless, a law that tells the state itself to stop its own operations from furthering economic self-destruction through sprawl is a huge positive step.

In Cleveland, the assembled will learn how Buffalo’s activists succeeded in preserving the Central Terminal and the Commercial Slip. They’ll hear about housing reclamation on the West Side, about the growth of Buffalo ReUse, about Howard Zemsky’s Larkin District redevelopment, about the Garden Walk, about new businesses springing up in the penumbra of Hauptman-Woodward and Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and about Congressman Brian Higgins’s stewardship of the Buffalo River corridor which, inch by inch, is going from wasteland to green-belt.

But beside job-exporting investment bankers, hundreds of millions of proletarians who are only just now beginning to demand something like American standards for themselves, and the legacy of bad policies, our Great Lakes cities suffer most acutely from cynicism, defeatism, and self-dealing. Here in Buffalo, we have egregious case after egregious case of crony capitalism on display, too. A 30-year revenue stream from the New York Power Authority, about $9 million a year, is about to be securitized and invested in all the infrastructure and accoutrements that a sporting-goods retailer wants in order to build a store overlooking Buffalo Harbor.

There is some hope that that $9 million a year may grow, which would be a good thing—because just to fix the sewers in the greater Buffalo area is a $300 million proposition that is currently without a source of funds.

But as it stands today, 30 years worth of that $9 million-a-year settlement is about to get sunk into a retail, restaurant, and hotel complex in one of the most over-retailed, over-restrauranted, over-hoteled places in America. As hotelier David Hart points out, the structure once known as the Statler Hilton Hotel was a functioning hotel until a local investor convinced public officials to give him millions to turn the E. B. Green-designed Genesee Building into a Hyatt, which created more hotel inventory than has ever been needed. And now there’s more “free” money to build even more hotel inventory, despite a shrinking regional population and a flat demand for hotel space. Creating supply, as restaurateur Mark Goldman says, does not create demand.

Yet despite the well documented subsidy calamities and outright failures of the Bass Pro promise in other markets, Buffalo’s hometown newspaper editorializes endlessly in favor of this permanent misallocation of public funds. Instead of letting independent investors decide whether to put up a hot dog stand in Erie Canal harbor, or a condominium developer taking a shot at selling Lake Erie sunsets to suburb-weary empty-nesters, the current plan of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation and of the Empire State Development Corporation that signs off on its work is to invest 30 years’ worth of our money in creating dozens of parking spaces for recreational vehicles, and another couple of thousand subsidized parking spaces for a downtown that has a huge existing supply of both surface and structured parking, and which has an office vacancy rate of well over 20 percent.

The mentality that drives this behavior is a poisonous combination of cynicism, despondency, and greed, all promoted by absentee-owned media that suck revenue out of the region while advancing an anti-government, anti-democratic message that strangely includes loud, repeated demands for public funds, but only for private interests these media endorse. The justification: “There’s nothing happening in Buffalo, so we have to do these big projects.”

The discussion in Cleveland will include a presentation on how the old-line media peddle despair, false hope, and cronyism to audiences that may actually be growing weary of that stew. The revitalization movement has allies in the independent alternative media, including RustWire and other blogs, some public radio stations, and the networking of GLUE. The movement also has a potential partner in the White House and its executive agencies, which within the last month let it be known that there’s money available to help do some integrated thinking about transportation, housing, and environmental issues, as we used to say in Buffalo, “side by each.” Cleveland’s meeting may be a first draft of watching folks from municipalities, non-governmental organizations, and colleges set aside magical thinking and work together. And despair, cronyism and absentee landlords be damned.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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