The danger when economic development becomes more than just wishful thinking and turns into something tangible is that, in the rush to create economic progress that will stick, the baby gets tossed out with the bath water. So often, we are too quick to give away the products of our own community-based hard work to outsiders. Visions of corporate sponsors dance in our heads, and the tantalizing pipe dream of creating tourist destinations in our downtown area is just too much for us to deny.
On Monday, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation board of directors voted to enter into a contract with Philadelphia-based venue management corporation Global Spectrum, a division of Comcast Spectator, to operate and manage events at Canalside. This will include the long-running and immensely popular free Thursday concert series, and the soft-ticketed Rocks the Harbor shows that combine to bring thousands of fans to the waterfront each summer.
Ever since the free Thursday series called Lafayette Square home, these events have been handled by Buffalo Place, the nonprofit group that birthed the concert series more than 25 years back. The ECHDC board voted in effect to end the relationship with Buffalo Place, which has lost money on the series the past two years.
There is a chance that Global Spectrum will decide to maintain ties with Buffalo Place, but there is an equal chance that Buffalo Place will walk away.
I’ll make no attempt to offer a definitive assessment of the job that Buffalo Place has done over the past quarter century. However, if imitation is indeed the most sincere form of flattery, then one need only look at the many similar free (and dirt-cheap) summer concert series that have sprung up in the area – all of which owe a debt to Thursday at the Square, which got there first – for an answer.
The series has endured a consistently bleak economic reality the entire tenure of its existence. It has suffered a steady stream of criticism from folks who don’t care for the programming, or who preferred the series when fewer people attended, or who resent having to pay, say, $20 for one of the Rocks the Harbor shows, as if they were somehow entitled to free shows simply by virtue of having grown used to them.
And yet, it’s still here.
As we witness the arrival of the tangible effects of financial investment in the Canalside area, and pinch ourselves to make sure this blossoming of new builds is not simply a hallucination born of wishful thinking, it would behoove us to reflect on what makes Thursday at Canalside – and before that, Thursday at the Square – something that we look forward to, worry over and value. Surely, part of that value lies in the fact that this is a locally conceived, locally executed series, one that has long strived to speak to the demands of the local populace. Has it failed on occasion? Probably. But more often than not, these shows have felt and looked like Buffalo events with local workers handling everything from booking to concessions, security to live sound, and as often as possible, local musicians sharing some of the limelight offered by one of the area’s highest-profile outdoor venues.
Are we willing to sacrifice all of this – or indeed, any of it – to lure more corporate sponsors downtown? Perhaps we are. Buffalo Place operated Canalside at loss for the last two years, so certainly, something needed to change.
There are some encouraging signs that Global Spectrum does not intend to move into Buffalo and rock the boat. Canalside concerts are doing well, which suggests that the formula does not need much messing with, if any.
“As of now, we are moving full steam ahead,” said Donny Kutzbach of Fun Time Presents, which has handled the talent booking for the Buffalo Place (both Lafayette Square and Canalside) concerts for many years. “As far as this year goes, we are already deep into booking it.” That’s good news – Kutzbach and business partner Artie Kwitchoff have a proven track record in the area, and most significantly, they know Buffalo because they live and work here.
Global Spectrum has promised to hire locally. It’s up to us to hold them to that promise. As economic development begins to yield physical results, we need to demand that such progress does not come at the expense of our community identity.
We’ve worked too hard for it, after all.