Buffalo came through for Bill Clinton and Al Gore. When do they come through for Buffalo?
The president needed a place to drive home his State of the Union message. Gore needed to preview his Year 2000 campaign act. We accommodated them with Wednesday's feel-good pep rally. More than 21,000 people at Marine Midland Arena dissolved in rapture at Clinton's every smirk and facial tic. The New York Times called it "rollicking."
This administration has presided over a long economic boom. It's ironic, then, that Bill and Company came to one of the few places prosperity has passed by.
"We are determined," said Gore, "to follow policies that make sure no one is left behind."
Gore had only to look around. He was surrounded by folks still waiting at the station.
Which reminded us that Washington just a week ago missed a golden opportunity to drop a little gold on beleaguered Buffalo.
In case you missed it, Buffalo was not -- that's N-O-T -- among the 15 places awarded a $100 million federal empowerment zone grant. It's a bauble HUD -- headed by Andrew Cuomo -- hands out every few years, theoretically to help hurting burgs off the floor.
If any place deserved one, it's us. It ought to be a slam dunk. We have the dubious honor of being among the "top" 10 metropolises in poverty, percentage of people on welfare, unemployment and low wages. Woes 'R Us.
Among the Chosen 15 were such thriving places as Minneapolis, Boston, Miami and Cincinnati.
There's something wrong with this equation.
What's wrong is politics.
Buffalo got sacrificed on the altar of Al Gore's and George Pataki's presidential ambitions.
The empowerment zone deal is partly an election sweetener for Gore. He wants to come back to these cities when he's running for president and say, "Look what we did." In the Bostons and Miamis, there's enough private money to mix with the $100 million pot to assure that projects will get done, buildings built and jobs created. And that means Gore will have something to point to in two years.
There's no such guarantee in tin-cup Buffalo, where private dollars fear to tread.
"The cities most in need of help are the least able to guarantee successes," said Robert Shibley, the University at Buffalo planning professor who worked on Buffalo's application. "And what they want to see are successes."
The way this thing is set up, Buffalo is too deep in the hole to register. It's below the radar screen.
As part of the criteria, cities had to cite projects backed by private dollars that needed public money to get done. For Buffalo, that was a Catch-22. If the city could attract private dollars, it wouldn't need a $100 million federal empowerment zone. In Buffalo, the public money is needed to lure private dollars, not the other way around.
"We got hurt (on the application) because there's no private sector growth," said Dave Rutecki, M&T Bank executive and a former member of the Common Council. "But that's why we need this infusion of money and credit."
If this was decided on need, we'd be on the way to the bank. Instead, we're again wondering why the train didn't stop.
That's not all.
HUD wanted the state to match the $100 million. Pataki said New York wouldn't. More than anything, that killed the deal in Buffalo -- and everyplace else in the state. New York was the lone large state that didn't get a zone, although applicants stretched from Brooklyn to Plattsburgh. Simply, Pataki -- who has his own presidential aspirations -- wasn't inclined to help something that Gore would be able to point to with pride in two years.
The city has taken some hits for screwing up its application. Some say it didn't get local banks, businesses and surrounding towns on board the way it should've.
That's not what I'm hearing. The four biggest local banks signed on. Mayor Masiello called the county executive and reached out to town supervisors. M&T hosted a rally for more than 100 local businessmen.
"We told them to treat this like a campaign," said Rutecki. "To write letters to their senators and congressmen."
Shibley was recruited from UB. The city brought in Paul Brophy, the Baltimore-based consultant who helped write that city's successful application four years ago, and ex-Toronto mayor David Crombie. For once, Buffalo reached for outside talent.
If there's a silver lining, the city has sensible plans for the waterfront, South Buffalo development zone and I-90 corridor.
"The city is right on the cusp," said Shibley. "I know people have heard that for 10 years. But when you're down this far, and were as dependent so long on a single industry, it takes a long time to come back."
A $100 million push from Washington would've helped.
That was the funny thing about Wednesday's Bill & Al shindig.
We came out for them, after they didn't come through for us.