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THRUWAY FOLKS NEED TO LOCATE DOWNTOWN

You wonder where they were when everybody realized sprawl kills cities.

You wonder if they saw the stories of downtown office buildings with hardly any lights on. The stories of a city hurting for property tax dollars and in a $22 million budget hole.

You wonder if they thought of the world beyond the edge of their desks when they looked for a new home.

You'd think people paid by tax dollars, in public agencies, would be sensitive to -- or at least aware of -- what ails the place they work in.

Apparently not.

Our friends at theNew York State Thruway Authority are looking for a new local headquarters. They've outgrown their current digs near the airport. They've narrowed it down to three sites.

None is within a ZIP code of downtown.

Meanwhile, Buffalo nearly leads the nation's cities -- you knew we were tops in something -- in vacant office space. It's nearly 20 percent, and that doesn't count (for reasons unfathomable) totally empty buildings. Can you say Bon-Ton? The business exodus to big-box-with-parking office parks in Amherst and Lancaster, sometimes chasing big IDA tax breaks, left downtown landlords salivating for tenants and big buildings with nobody home. Foreclosures R Us.

The last census underlined the obvious: As the city goes down, it drags the suburbs with it -- the closer ones first, then beyond. Cheektowaga, West Seneca and Tonawanda lost people the past 10 years. The only reason Amherst, once the promised land, held steady was a glut of new senior housing. Suburban supervisors, at least the ones with their eyes open, talk about saving the city to save themselves.

Taxpayer-fed agencies should be part of the answer, not the problem. They should look to the overall good. Which means they should look downtown, first and last, for a new or bigger home. Instead, the Thruway Authority is eyeballing sites in Cheektowaga close to the Thruway.

Granted, we're talking about 100 workers. It's not going to turn downtown around. But it'll help. And it's the principle of the thing.

"The (Thruway) Authority could set a strong example for better decisions by public agencies," said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, the only politician who noticed. In fact, said Hoyt, if combined downtown with other transportation agencies, "we might even have some coordinated transportation planning in this town."

Authority spokesman Terry O'Brien, reached in Albany, said the authority needs an office near the Thruway to "depose maintenance vehicles and get our engineers and inspectors out there."

But their current office is closer to the Kensington Expressway than to the Thruway. A downtown office would be blocks from the Kensington entrance, a straight shot to the Thruway. And we're not talking about driving payloaders and backhoes down Franklin Street. The office is full of white-collar keyboard-tappers, not shovel-toters. The parking lot Friday was a sea of passenger cars, except for two state vehicles -- a van and a pickup truck.

David Sweet is a big downtown property owner. He just bought a 12-story downtown building for $3 million at a foreclosure sale. He's got so much open space there that, if he carpeted it with sod, he could graze cattle.

He's still waiting for the Thruway Authority to call.

"It doesn't annoy me as much as disappoint me," said Sweet. "We've got to focus on downtown. That's where this region needs the help."

Granted, downtown parking is tight right now. The Thruway folks would have to stay put for a year or so, until three downtown ramps are expanded.

Of course, if we ran Metro Rail out to Transit Road we wouldn't have to choke downtown with parking ramps. But that's not the way we think around here.

e-mail:desmonde@buffnews.com

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