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If you don't think much of Buffalo's leadership, don't just blame the leaders.

Blame the fates.

On the notion that Buffalo has been grumbling about its leadership for decades, The Buffalo News conducted a "civic census" aimed at gauging the strength of the institutions most likely to produce great leaders.

The results: Buffalo ranked 19th out of 20 communities studied nationally in the overall strength of its civic assets, largely because of the weakness of its business sector.

Simply put, Buffalo has trouble producing strong leaders because it doesn't have the Fortune 1,000 company headquarters, the huge employers, the big banks and the strong charities that other metro areas rely on for leadership.

"This is a wake-up call," said Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution's Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy in Washington, D.C. "What the region needs is a frank and brutal conversation about its assets and its liabilities."

The liabilities are tremendous. The Buffalo economy relies more on government money than private enterprise than any metro area in the study except for Albany.

Buffalo has only two Fortune 1,000 company headquarters -- M&T Bank and National Fuel -- and just a handful of firms that employ more than 1,000 -- the kind of large concerns most likely to produce strong leaders.

Historic events of decades ago -- the death of Buffalo's aerospace industry or the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway -- have a great bearing on the weakness of Buffalo's business-sector leadership today, said David C. Perry, director of the Great Cities Institute at the University of Chicago.

"To blame all of the problems on this generation of leaders is just really crazy," said Perry, formerly a professor at the University at Buffalo.

Buffalo's business leadership took another big blow in the early 1990s when two of its four major banks -- Goldome and Empire of America -- failed.

"Those two banks were involved everywhere, funding everything," said Susan Warren Russ, director of Leadership Buffalo, a training program for up-and-comers. "Once they left, the others couldn't pick up the slack."

Buffalo's poor score on those business measures, along with its last-place ranking in charitable assets, doomed it to 19th place on the civic census. Only Grand Rapids, Mich., ranked worse.

Milwaukee, thanks to a large number of Fortune 1,000 company headquarters and an overall healthy private sector, finished first. Omaha, Neb., a midsize bastion of corporate strength and charitable giving, was second.

And Rochester finished third, because of its strong base of Fortune 1,000 companies and large employers, including Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb.

This doesn't mean Buffalo is without some strengths. Buffalo ranked in the middle of the pack in both civic involvement and the number of major colleges and universities -- two other important sources of leadership.

And Buffalo ranked first in the percentage of the population enrolled in a church, synagogue or mosque, meaning that its religious community can play a strong leadership role.

However, in the government sector, the civic census finds power so diffuse that the many voices may well drown each other out.

Buffalo had the fourth-largest local government in the civic census. And while the region ranked only 11th in government centralization, there are still 47.5 municipal governments per 1 million population in the region.

"You may just have too many leaders on the government side," said Katz of the Brookings Institution.

Two governments stand out as having far more power than any other. Buffalo's city government ranked as the 10th-strongest out of 20 studied, and Erie County's government ranked as the third-strongest.

"This should say to Joel Giambra: You have a lot of power," said Richard T. Reinhard, a former chief of staff to Mayor Anthony M. Masiello who now heads Central Atlanta Progress.

All in all, the civic census should show local leaders that they've got a lot of work to do and a lot of history to overcome.

"It used to be that all these large institutions were the key to leadership," said Dean Williams, who teaches courses on leadership at Harvard University. "But what's been happening in a lot of places is that untraditional leaders have been coming up and exploiting that vacuum and saying, 'We can contribute.' "

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