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Doubt meets faith on the waterfront

I found him in his usual spot, hunkered in a dim corner of a nameless downtown coffee shop. He had the same defeated look in his eyes, the same rumpled shirt, the same "woe-is-me" look.

It was Buffalo Joe. He is our fictional Everyman, the imaginary emblem of our broken dreams and unfilled promises.
Years of projects that never happened, of plans made but never followed, of backward motion instead of progress broke Joe's spirit, killed his inner puppy. Our imaginary symbol of inertia is a cynical, jaded presence with "Wide Right" tattooed on his bicep. Buffalo Joe doesn't believe that anything good will ever happen around here -- not until he sees it.

I approached cautiously.

"Joe, chin up," I said. "Good news. We have an actual plan for the downtown waterfront. They're going to build a neighborhood around Bass Pro, a place for folks to eat, drink, live, work. Just like a real city. Tourists, even. Like Boston's Quincy Market."

Joe raised a leaden eyelid.

"You mean the long-promised, still-not-here Bass Pro?" he snickered. "You're like a child, you'll believe anything. Five years ago, Adelphia. Now Bass Pro and a marketplace clone. Where's the money? Which Albany bureaucrat will sleep on it for 10 years? Wake up and smell the coffee."

I beat back his bitterness.

"You're not too alert for a guy who mainlines caffeine," I retorted. "Brian Higgins, the congressman, got millions for the waterfront from the Power Authority. There's no more 'The check is in the mail' nonsense. The early waterfront stuff is nearly paid for. We've got a panel of local folks running the show. This time it's for real."

Joe shook his head.

"They'll find some way to screw it up," he stated. "What about the canal history site, weren't they going to mess with that?"

It was a glancing blow.

"There was some backroom talk," I told him, "but it got hashed out before the plan hit the public. Look, this waterfront panel is heavy with Republican business types. Maybe they got DeWitt Clinton confused with Bill Clinton. Bottom line, any change to the canal plan likely revives three words that make folks break out in hives: environmental impact study."

Joe nodded, for once agreeing.

"Messing with the already-done history site plan holds everything up for years," he said. "Bass Pro would bolt. When do these geniuses realize that heritage development helps commerce, and vice-versa?"

I nodded.

"Protect history, and development goes on around it. Higgins wants a lift bridge. That opens all the land across the channel, by the Coast Guard station and old lighthouse, for parks and condos and offices. Right now, it's like a prairie in the middle of downtown."

Joe shrugged, unimpressed.

"The point, my caffeine-addled friend, is repopulating Buffalo," I said. "To get folks who left for the suburbs to come back. A transfusion, instead of a steady bleed. Larry Quinn, the Sabres guy who's on the waterfront panel, talked about 100,000 people eventually moving back into the city."

Joe, startled, knocked over his empty coffee cup.

"Hey, no disrespect, but I think Quinn took a hockey puck to the head," he blurted. "The guy does a nice job with the Sabres, but the day we see another 100,000 people in Buffalo is the day I switch to decaf."

Maybe Quinn got caught up in the moment, I said, but it would be nice if folks moved into the city, instead of out of it.

Joe pondered the thought.

"Nice for you, maybe. What about me?" he replied. "All those people come back, downtown fills up and I can't sit here all day for the price of a coffee."

Development has its price, Joe.

"Stuff it, yuppie," he spat. "And put a buck in the tip jar on your way out."

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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