In a former Catholic school now serving a Pentecostal congregation, Mark J.F. Schroeder seemed to pick the perfect setting to make his point on Tuesday evening.
Neighborhoods like Riverside used to host thriving business districts, the Buffalo comptroller and underdog mayoral candidate said.
Now, he claims they are neglected by Mayor Byron W. Brown, and so he is challenging him in the September Democratic primary.
“It’s all about the neighborhoods,” he said, in the second of several stops on his citywide “listening tour.”
“We’re grateful for downtown development and waterfront development,” he added. “But the only people living down there are rich people. And every single business district in the neighborhoods has been asleep since the advent of the malls.”
Schroeder spoke to a crowd of only about 15 people at the former St. John’s School ‑ now River Rock Church ‑ at 410 East St., despite Facebook announcements and expectations of a larger turnout.
Borrowing a page from Hillary Clinton’s 1999 “listening tour” -- held as she prepared for a Senate candidacy -- Schroeder is staging a series of events in city neighborhoods, none downtown, to gauge feedback from voters and bolster his claims that Brown cares only about downtown.
George Fitzpatrick, who works for the Internal Revenue Service and spoke at the meeting, backs the Schroeder premise. Even traditional Fourth of July fireworks in Riverside, he said, have been moved downtown.
“Our history has been moved aside so we can have millions in development downtown,” he said, while Schroeder listened. “They’ve taken all these things that were nice in the neighborhoods and pushed them downtown.”
Lisa Menchetti, who lives in Black Rock but runs a business in Kaisertown, told Schroeder she is disappointed by City Hall’s lack of help for neighborhood firms like hers. Offices are never staffed nor phone calls returned, she complained.
“It’s really a frustrating phenomenon,” she said. “How can that be changed?”
Schroeder pointed to the South Buffalo Chamber of Commerce he created while representing the area in the County Legislature. The Buffalo Niagara Partnership may represent the entire region, he said, but not neighborhoods. He said his administration will offer free help to small businesses seeking education in tax, marketing and accounting matters.
It all sounded good to Brian Hoock, a customer service representative who said he likes the Schroeder message.
“If Byron were invited out here, he wouldn’t even be able to find it,” he said, of the mayor.
Schroeder appears to take every opportunity to drive home his neighborhood theme. When a committee headed by Brown last month picked a downtown location over Central Terminal on the East Side for a new Amtrak station, Schroeder immediately thrust the issue front and center.
He called the decision a “sham,” and pledged to reverse it if elected.
“As mayor, I will bring trains back to the Central Terminal, and a great deal more,” Schroeder said at the time.
He is also emphasizing contrasts between his open meetings like Tuesday’s at River Rock and the rail station meeting that was closed to the press and protected by street barricades.
“The hypocrisy is palpable,” he said. “Buffalo needs a leader that listens to its people instead of slamming the door in their faces.”
Schroeder is moving forward in other areas of the campaign, too. His January report to the state Board of Elections listed about $157,000 in his campaign treasury.
Spokesman Patrick J. Curry said Schroeder collected about $20,000 at an April fundraiser in South Buffalo and more at a recent event on the West Side. Two more fundraisers are set for May.
Schroeder’s efforts hardly stack up against those of an entrenched and politically savvy incumbent like Brown. The mayor reported about $341,000 in his campaign account in January.
The Erie County Democratic Committee and Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner are slated on Thursday to bestow their important endorsement on Brown, providing the mayor with the vast organizing powers and volunteer network of the party.
In addition, Brown can count on his own campaign machine comprised of City Hall workers and his Grassroots political organization, along with most of the city’s private sector power structure.
Schroeder, meanwhile, plans to continue his “listening session” concept.
He has two more planned for May 9 at It Takes a Village Action Organization on Main Street and another on May 16 at Lovejoy’s Hennepin Center.
“I don’t have these big ears for nothing,” he told his audience on Tuesday. “I listen to people.”