You might think someone who spent a quarter-century in City Hall would see government as the key to helping Buffalo’s left-behind East Side neighborhoods share in the prosperity sprouting around them.
But maybe it’s that perspective gained in 26 years on the Common Council, the final eight as president, that has James Pitts convinced that business development is the key to filling what he calls “the hole in the doughnut.”
Not that he knocks governmental or any other efforts. The problems of poverty and joblessness in parts of the inner city are so acute that they need to be addressed from every angle.
But “inclusive entrepreneurial development” is critical, he said. That’s why he’s pulling together an Oct. 22 “Eastside21” forum of economic-development, business, finance and community experts to come up with a plan for a business incubator to create companies and jobs around the emerging clean technology industry and to train residents for those business and job opportunities.
“A lot of the needs of the inner city get overlooked” in other efforts and contests to spur small business, said Pitts, president of the nonprofit Green Gold Corp. that focuses on opportunities in clean technology. He hopes the forum – the first of three – changes that.
One thing that also needs changing is the perception of the East Side, shaped too often by the focus on the undeniable challenges instead of the opportunities and the resilience of residents. Changing that perception could, in itself, help with the financing entrepreneurs have long complained of not getting, even though some forum speakers say that is a universal problem.
“I think all entrepreneurship is difficult. There’s no easy place to do business,” said Susan McCartney, director of the Small Business Development Center at SUNY Buffalo State.
Andrew Dorn Jr., who helped start and was CEO of Jamestown Savings Bank and Greater Buffalo Savings Bank in the 1990s, agreed.
“It’s very tough to start anything entrepreneurial unless you have your own capital,” said Dorn, co-managing director of Energy Solutions Consortium, who will talk about raising venture capital.
That need to have your own funds, of course, makes it harder on minorities whose family and friends haven’t accumulated the multigenerational wealth many white startups can tap.
Pitts envisions a network of industry partners who would help fund the incubator. They would identify available jobs the center would train residents to fill in a much more direct “pipeline right into the neighborhoods” than currently exists in preparatory programs, saving companies on retraining costs. That’s just part of a strategy to focus on economics, first and foremost.
The free forum at the OSC complex, formerly American Axle, on East Delavan Avenue – with registration required at the Green Gold Corp. website – also will include the Buffalo Urban League, the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies, General Motors and Harmac Medical Products.
“People say, ‘Well, why are you focusing on the East Side?’ Because nobody else is focusing on the East Side,” Pitts said.
And those who do typically have focused on housing or services.
In a capitalist economy, leaving out business development is one reason Buffalo has a hole in the doughnut.