Maybe, just maybe, we are getting smarter.
If we do, taxes will be lower, more jobs will come, and fewer people will leave.
Politicians on Thursday OK'd a plan to control sprawl and locate business where we most need it. It is not the regional planning board we need, but it is at least a regional plan.
Tom Kucharski likes it. As head of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, Kucharski has the unenviable job of luring businesses here. Our chronic refusal to see beyond the backyard fence makes his job harder. We are a body with no head, a skull with no brain, an army with no leader.
We are 44 separate villages, towns and cities; 28 school districts; five local development agencies; and hundreds of politicians. Yet no person wakes up thinking about the forest instead of his individual tree.
Nearly 10 years after civic leader Kevin Gaughan's Chautauqua Conference showed how we are all in this together, we stay fractured and apart. Maybe, with this plan, that finally changes.
As head of BNE, Kucharski -- direct but open, with a wrestler's thick frame -- sees not borders, but a region. "Every project we do," Kucharski said, shaking his head in dismay, "is a fire drill. . . . We have to do all this hand-holding to get it through all the agencies."
Kucharski came from the prosperous Lehigh Valley. It has "twice as many" layers of government as we do. It also has what we don't: a regional plan and a planning board, to see the bigger picture. Any new business had to fit into the frame. "The [planning board] analyzed how any project affected public services, traffic, sprawl -- all of that stuff," Kucharski said on a recent afternoon in his downtown office. "It looked at where the best place [in the region] was for a business to locate."
We may be the largest area in America without a regional planning board. Now at least we have a sketchy regional plan. "It is a strategy to protect urban areas," Kucharski said of the plan, which the Erie County Legislature adopted, "and to do smart growth in the suburbs."
A planning board cannot dictate where new businesses go. But it can entice business with tax breaks into the city or older 'burbs, which need the tax base and already have utilities and services. It can funnel business to places that already have schools, roads, stores and sewers. It could speed up brownfields cleanup so companies can locate on vast stretches of former factory land.
"Businesses [looking to come here] don't care about individual towns or villages," Kucharski said. "They just look at us as an area of North America."
Not having a regional plan -- or a planning board -- costs us. An office park springs up in, say, outer-suburb Lancaster or East Amherst. People want to live near where they work, so houses get built. Where new houses go, new or wider roads follow -- along with sewers, water lines, schools, stores, firehouses and the higher taxes to pay for it all.
Meanwhile, the Buffalos, Kenmores and Cheektowagas -- which already have the roads and sewers and services -- empty out. Jobs move farther away from folks who need them most. A region losing people sprawls outward.
"There are a bunch of companies going to the suburbs," Kucharski said, "that should be [locating] in Buffalo."
Shrinking regions should condense, not expand.
"There needs to be," Kucharski said, "somebody who says: Here is the cost to the community of doing this project here. If we do it here, we will have to extend roadways and add utilities, and it will mean more traffic and more taxes."
Instead, it has been every village, town and city for itself.
Instead of fighting as one, we fight among ourselves. If that does not change, we will all keep losing.