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JOB ONE: THE ECONOMY
IMPROVING THE BUSINESS CLIMATE DOMINATES THE LIST OF PRIORITIES AS BUFFALO NIAGARA'S LEADERS LOOK FORWARD

Kathy Courtney Hochul couldn't be more of a Buffalo booster, but she has a tough sales job in front of her, right in her own home.

"My 13- and 11-year-olds have already announced they are not staying 'since Western New York has no future and no good jobs,' " said Hochul, a Hamburg Town Board member. "It's heartbreaking."

Multiply that anecdote by the thousands, and you'll understand why improving the local economy rated as the top priority by far for those who replied to this spring's Buffalo News leadership survey.

Looking to the future, the survey reveals a leadership that's increasingly skeptical of silver bullets -- those big, expensive projects that are supposed to magically reverse the region's fortunes with one shot.

Instead, the new priorities are on the more difficult, big-picture issues of reviving the local economy, improving schools, consolidating government services and cutting taxes.

And while the 300-plus leaders who replied to the survey don't have a lot of respect for past attempts to address those issues, they do have plenty of respect for newer faces who take fresh approaches to ending the region's malaise.

"My sense is that Buffalo and its leadership are going in the right direction," said John Rigas, chairman of Adelphia Communications Corp. "I think there's a sense of urgency to get things done to get the revitalization of Buffalo started."

There's certainly an urgency among the 317 politicians, business leaders and activists who responded to the survey.

They ranked improving the local economy as nearly twice as important as the No. 2 priority, improving public education, and almost three times higher than the third- and
fourth-ranked issues, consolidating government services and cutting local and school taxes.

The priorities are tied in together in one question, said Dianne Bennett, president of the Hodgson, Russ law firm: "How do you improve the quality of life here?"

Far down on the list were the individual projects that have gathered much attention in recent years: building a new Peace Bridge (No. 9); a new convention center (No. 10); and extending Route 219, which barely registered a blip.

"The projects will come, and they'll get done," said Muriel Howard, president of Buffalo State College. "But if the economy isn't addressed, no one's going to come to our beautiful convention center."

That's a major change in thinking for a region that, for the past two decades, has focused so much attention on individual projects such as Metro Rail, HSBC Arena and Dunn Tire Park, hoping that each could shake the region out of its decades-long doldrums.

"We have this 'Field of Dreams' mentality: Build a regional asset, and the rest will come," said real estate developer Paul F. Ciminelli.

Now, though, the public seems to be wising up.

"People aren't stupid. They know one bridge or one building isn't going to make this a great community," said Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello.

Then again, people aren't exactly thrilled with how the region has gone about building bridges and buildings. Nearly 65 percent of the people surveyed said leaders had done a poor job of deciding how to expand or replace the Peace Bridge. And 46 percent said the same thing about efforts to build a new convention center.

Some wondered if the region's stumbles on such projects illustrated something larger about the region's psyche.

"The area is slowed by an enormous inferiority complex," said Bill Greely, business representative for Local 235, Service Employees International Union. "Nothing gets done because we live in fear of making a mistake. Our leaders study and debate everything to death."

Survey respondents also weren't particularly thrilled with current efforts to address top-ranked issues.

Eighty percent said leaders were doing either a fair or poor job fixing the local economy. The same percentage said the same thing about efforts to revive Niagara Falls. And 71 percent offered a negative assessment of attempts to consolidate government services.

Local leaders all recognize the problems, but they "have not developed a comprehensive plan or vision for revitalization of the region that the political, business and civic leadership and the community can support or buy into," said Renae Kimble, a Niagara County legislator.

Perhaps that's why survey respondents showed a special respect for newer leaders, or those who were at least new at what they were doing. The leaders rated as the most effective in town -- County Executive Joel A. Giambra, Buffalo Philharmonic Music Director JoAnn Falletta and Rigas -- all fit that category.

That's not to say the old leadership hasn't been successful in some areas. These leaders, many from the Group of 18 and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, can take credit for the new terminal at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport; working to attract low-cost air carriers that drove down air fares; Roswell Park Cancer Institute's new facility; the deal to improve Ralph Wilson Stadium and obtaining money for the Darwin Martin House restoration.

In addition, the survey singled out a handful of leaders whose positive effect outweighed their power. On the political side, those leaders included Assemblymen Brian Higgins and Sam Hoyt and State Sen. Byron Brown, all Democrats.

Those rankings -- along with a few other signs about town -- point the way to the next generation of Buffalo's leaders.

For one thing, there's the New Millennium Group, a group of young professionals who came together in 1997 and soon found themselves as one of the main forces pushing for a "signature span" across the Niagara River.

In addition, the offspring of some of Buffalo's business elite have come together as the "43x79 Group." Named for Buffalo's latitude and longitude, the group hopes to raise the Buffalo community to new heights.

"We don't do a good enough job prioritizing what our objectives are," said Ciminelli, a key member of the 43x79 group. That group was formed when one Group of 18 member invited the younger people to dinner and pointed out the opportunities they had to work together toward positive change.

The influential executive committee of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership now includes a significant number of younger people, too.

Leadership experts see such groups -- and young political leaders such as Brown, Hoyt and Higgins -- as central to the future.

"What you're seeing here is the window of opportunity for improvement and moving on," said Kathryn Foster, planning professor at the University at Buffalo. "The new leadership cadres don't look like the old ones. They're younger and more diverse."

And more flexible.

Hoyt, for example, started his career in politics as a self-described "in-your-face liberal," only to shift to the center in response to concerns about the economy and taxes.

"I pride myself on being independent and have kind of adopted the mantra: If the status quo isn't working, why not try something else?" he said.

People are coming to appreciate such flexibility, Hoyt said.

"That's why Giambra has done so well: He's willing to work with both Democrats and Republicans," Hoyt said.

But this new generation of leaders faces some difficult obstacles -- old ways and old faces.

Newer political leaders often say they struggle against a local culture that, for decades, has valued politics over governance and power over progress.

Common Council Member Charley H. Fisher III neatly described that culture as he sees it.

"Status quo; mediocre; no vision; race-based," Fisher said. "Failed leadership in the past ran us into the ground."

Fisher bemoaned the region's troubled economy, but like many survey respondents, he didn't stop there. While promoting racial harmony ranked only eighth on the priorities rated by local leaders -- behind all sorts of economy-related issues -- it's a major concern nevertheless.

About 73 percent said local leaders had done either a fair or poor job on improving racial harmony. Many criticized politicians of all races for subtly injecting race into one issue after another.

"Stop being racist and using the race issue," said Georgette Pelletterie, a Lancaster Town Board member. "We are all humans trying to have a better place to live for our future, our children."

While younger politicians must cope with a divisive political culture, younger business and civic leaders face an entrenched old guard. Ciminelli, for example, said younger leaders are often ignored as community institutions turn again and again to the old guard for leadership.

"It is one of my greatest sources of frustration," Ciminelli said.

For younger leaders, it has been a source of great frustration for a long time. Note, for example, what happened in 1988, when some members of the Group of 18 -- a group of the area's most established executives who banded together to try to get the community moving -- were explaining the organization's ways to the first class of Leadership Buffalo, a training program for younger leaders.

Led by Muriel Howard (then Muriel Moore), the younger leaders upbraided their elders for their lack of diversity and their father-knows-best approach to leadership.

"Muriel and a few others stood up and basically said, 'Who do you think you are?' " recalled Susan Warren Russ, executive director of Leadership Buffalo. "They got creamed."

Ever so slowly, though, things might be changing. With Giambra pressing regional cooperation and with the community learning the lessons of painful battles over the Peace Bridge and Erie Canal terminus, the doors are opening to the corridors of power.

"You need to cultivate a constellation of forces," said Thomas N. Kucharski, president of the business development group Buffalo Niagara Enterprise and executive director of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency. "Not just the old leadership group -- it has to involve everybody. . . . We made a mess of doing some things by not involving the right people."

Kucharski, who held a similar position in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, recalled helping to pull together a deal for a new Lucent Technologies plant in Allentown, Pa. To make it work, five municipalities, two counties and the State of Pennsylvania all had to come together.

"You're starting to see that happen here," he said.

Please send responses to this series to leadership@buffnews.com, including your name and telephone number. Reporters and editors will review thee-mails and plan possible follow-up stories based on your input.

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