On Friday morning, a cabal of elected and appointed officials huddled together in the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park to announce an ambitious series of events planned for Canalside through the summer.
The speeches were ebullient and self-congratulatory, as such speeches tend to be, but this time the speakers’ puffed chests were justified. As the sound of construction equipment from four ongoing projects clattered in the background, we heard of plans for some 800 events to take place along a small section of the burgeoning Buffalo waterfront from May through October.
Five years ago, if someone said that the driving force behind this project was the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., few would have believed it. For many years, the organization was an emblem of regressive thinking, an agent of stasis and a well-greased funnel for money flowing from our pockets to corporate interests.
Gradually, as the collective delusion known as Bass Pro receded from memory, the agency has performed a remarkable about-face. After plenty of prodding from the community, its philosophy evolved from dangling massive subsidies in front of retailers to sponsoring smaller-scale activities and projects designed to attract actual people.
Now, at least on the evidence of the past few weeks, it seems that the ECHDC’s leaders have finally realized the economic wisdom of directing public tax dollars toward the public good. This is a novel idea where economic development agencies are concerned, but a welcome one.
Until now, the skeptics among us could be forgiven for suspecting the agency of conducting a bit of propaganda in its endorsement of cheap projects for small-scale and public-minded growth from the likes of unfairly maligned “obstructionists” Fred Kent, Tim Tielman, Mark Goldman, his late brother Tony Goldman and others.
Some posited that the corporation’s sponsorship of summer events, rainbow-colored Adirondack chairs and other cheap additions to the waterfront was little more than hush money for the immutable critics of the Bass Pro debacle.
But this week, we received convincing proof that this is not the case in the form of a multimillion-dollar project to illuminate the city’s grain elevators and the announcement of the hundreds of summer events.
Under the leadership of president Tom Dee and civic-minded chairman Robert Gioia – a genuine believer in the public good – the ECHDC seems finally to have emerged from the dark days of Larry Quinn’s misguided leadership.
“In the last three years, it’s changed dramatically from the silver-bullet approach to an incremental approach,” Dee said after Friday’s news conference. “We always base our focus on public access followed by things to do. Add to that incremental improvements, infrastructure and construction, and then comes economic development. It’s a formula.”
Other IDAs and City Hall should watch closely over the next couple of years to see how well this time-tested approach pans out in Buffalo. Given the success of similar projects in cities across the Rust Belt and far beyond – along with the $250 million of subsidized private investment this philosophy has already yielded on Buffalo’s waterfront – we have little reason to believe it won’t.
We must always pay attention to the way agencies like the ECHDC spend and misspend public dollars. Perhaps there are more missteps in the offing. But today, the agency and the waterfront it is building look better than ever.