Among Hollywood’s charming films last year was “Saving Mr. Banks,” which depicted how Walt Disney wooed Pamela Travers into letting him transform her children’s book, “Mary Poppins,” into a big-screen musical. The movie revealed that the light of the Poppins nanny character was inspired by the darkness Travers endured as a child of an alcoholic father. In the film’s most poignant moment, as she decries the musical’s saccharine lyrics, Travers derisively tells the composer, “You don’t understand my story at all. Mary Poppins didn’t come to save the children. She came to save the father.”
Since the passing of Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. in March, a comparable morality tale – the status of the Bills – has gripped Western New York. Like the Hollywood lyricist who missed the sense of guilt hidden in Travers’ ode to innocence, we believe that this is a stressful story about our football team’s future. But it’s not. It’s a sad story about our community’s past. And as our region strives to shed forgettable yesterdays and create memorable tomorrows, understanding past failures is essential to avoiding the age-old admonition of being consigned to repeat them.
When professional sports teams in America change ownership, they rarely change location. During the past 20 years, 12 National Football League teams changed hands: Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Miami, Minnesota, New York Giants, New York Jets, Oakland, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Tennessee and Washington. Not one of them even entertained the thought of moving to another city. During the same period, six Major League Baseball and three professional basketball franchises were sold. Each of them stayed put.
But in our case, since talk of ownership succession began some 15 years ago, it was a given that once the Bills’ original owner died, our beloved team might move out. As a result, every citizen and fan has endured a heart-wrenching roller coaster of uncertainty about the fate of our franchise. It’s an experience no community should ever have to endure, and one that no growing community ever has.
Virtually from the day of Wilson’s death, politicians have fallen over themselves to appear to be engaged in keeping the Bills in Buffalo. But not one of them has acknowledged, let alone examined, the underlying events that led our community to the dire strait of trying to retain something we felt was forever ours.
Commercial enterprises, including sports teams, relocate for a reason. In our case, any new owner of the Bills will consider picking up stakes in response to the economic death spiral that gripped Buffalo Niagara from 1970 through 2010. During that 40-year span, Erie County lost 194,451 citizens, rendering us the fastest-dying region in America. Between 1996 and 2006, we lost more than 30 percent of our young people ages 18 to 34. Along with people, we hemorrhaged jobs, capital and hope at breathtaking pace, culminating in the decade between 2000 and 2010, when someone moved out of Erie County every hour and 40 minutes.
Our decline was uninterrupted by the seven economic resurgences that swept the nation between 1996 and 2007, driven by the Internet age and the untold affluence it spawned. It was unaffected by the explosion of wealth in stocks and other capital markets that has transformed countless communities. Perhaps most galling, Western New York’s downward slide took place while our nation’s population grew by 44.1 percent, and New York State’s population grew by 7.6 percent.
All through the 1990s and up to 2012, evidence of a community in peril was everywhere. Like a riptide, the consequences of fewer people and even fewer jobs toppled and bruised all in its path. Everyone, that is, except elected officials – the very people with the responsibility to respond to the crisis. Had they done so, a new Bills owner might be assessing an upstate region with 10 years, not 10 months, of upward arc.
The first cut
As is always the case in a capitalist democracy, the first sector affected by lack of growth is private sector business. Which in our community, tragically, immediately affected families.
The first time I heard the word “downsizing” was in a 2002 meeting with a corporate client, as he described his plan to weather what he called “the disappearing customer storm.” Business 101 holds that reduced revenue requires cutting expenses, which almost always translates into slashing employees. And between 1990 and 2006 – as Buffalo Niagara lost more than 90,000 private sector jobs – layoffs, mergers and plant closings far exceeded start-ups, expansions and openings.
Business people always say, “my company either grows or it dies.” That simple phrase conceals an even simpler truth: every year, goods and services cost more. To survive, let alone turn a profit, an enterprise must produce annual increases in customers and sales just to keep pace with higher costs.
In rapid fashion, local businesses responded to reduced population by downsizing their work force. As jobs left our region, so did mothers and fathers, with children in tow. In lockstep, those families that remained began to retrench, putting off new roofs, cutting back dinners out and finding ways to do more with less. That is, they adapted. And our local economy, already gasping for breath, ground to a halt.
Then came the merger of hospitals throughout Buffalo Niagara. In 2004, Albany created a panel to examine reform of the health care industry. In its November 2006 Report of the New York State Commission on Health Care Facilities in the 21st Century, the Berger Commission issued a set of sweeping recommendations to consolidate local hospitals for the simple reason that their number of beds far exceeded what was necessary for upstate New York’s depleted populace.
Rereading the commission’s report is like reviewing a primer on the 40-year, slow-motion recession through which our community traveled. Prolonged public debate over hospital mergers – ultimately resulting in the closing of Buffalo’s Millard Fillmore and establishment of the Kaleida Health network – set off bells in politicians’ ears, alarming them of similar hurt that was about to be inflicted on other components of Western New York life.
The hospital fight underscored several truths: population and job loss were going to affect every business and government in our region; the pain was going to be wide and deep; and a wholesale resetting of our local economy would be necessary to begin a new period of growth. In response to all of these whistles and warnings, local politicians did nothing.
Next came wrenching cutbacks in the Western New York faith community, including the heartbreak of merging congregations and closing places of worship.
In June 2005, then Bishop Edward Kmiec announced the diocese’s years-long plan to downsize the Catholic community in response to dramatically declining parishioners. In March 2007, the diocese merged 10 parishes into five, closing St. Edmund Church in Tonawanda and St. Elizabeth in Buffalo. In July of that year, it closed 12 more, including Buffalo’s St. Gerard, Queen of Peace and St. Adalbert. In a sad metaphor of the city’s economic collapse, a Catholic community in Georgia proposed dismantling St. Gerard, brick by brick, packing it in a truck, and moving it to their growing town.
By 2010, the Buffalo Catholic Diocese had closed 77 of its 265 parishes. During those years, you couldn’t open a newspaper or watch a TV newscast and not read about or see distraught members of a congregation tearfully trying to accept that their place of worship was forever gone.
The last straw
Dwindling population ultimately leads to losing youth. Thus, the last segment of our region to feel the effect of decline was public and private schools.
Public school student population dropped consistently throughout the last 40 years. But it accelerated to a nation-leading pace between 2000 and 2010, when enrollment plummeted by more than 43,000 students. Of Erie County’s 27 school districts, only Clarence and Lancaster were spared, each growing by a handful of children. But from Amherst, which lost 10 percent of its students, to Cheektowaga (12 percent), to Holland (30 percent) to Buffalo (31 percent), every school district endured unparalleled shrinkage. As a whole, Erie County lost one-fifth of its public school students.
Among private and parochial schools, the outlook was even bleaker. In 2003, Erie County had 86 private grammar schools. Today, it has 41. Between 2003 and 2013, private primary school enrollment declined by 41 percent. This past January, the Catholic Diocese closed 10 parochial schools, from Tonawanda’s St. Francis of Assisi to Orchard Park’s St. Bernadette, to Hamburg’s St. Mary of the Lake. Of the 10 closed schools, most had dwindled to less than 200 students, and one, St. Joseph in Gowanda, had but 42.
In April 2013, the board of trustees of Holy Angels Academy, a venerable Catholic girls’ school that had been a North Buffalo fixture since 1861, announced it was closing its doors for lack of growth. At a Mass marking the institution’s end, as their daughters stood and wept, even the fathers couldn’t hold back their tears.
Finding our way back
Gazing on this landscape of loss, is it any wonder that a new Buffalo Bills owner might question the wisdom of locating such an expensive enterprise in a dwindling market? Having to contend with uncontrollable variables such as player injury, season records and competition from other entertainment and sports, why add the risk of disappearing customers?
The answer, of course, is that Western New York is, finally, on the rise. Urban development in Buffalo and suburban investment from East Aurora to Lancaster has appeared for the first time in decades. More important, the U.S. Census estimates that for the first time since 1970, Erie County’s population recently grew – albeit by just 826 residents since 2010. But it’s a start. Our task is to keep it going, and there’s one sure way to help us continue upward.
Of the complex array of factors that caused folks to flee Western New York in droves – steel industry collapse; decline of manufacturing; the fact that “world” is no longer a section in the newspaper, but rather a linked economy – the chief culprit was and remains our nation-leading local taxes. Erie County’s concentration of governments (45) and politicians (412) is virtually without peer. As a result, Erie County residents pay the fifth-highest property taxes in America – out of 3,086 counties.
That’s why, back in 2006, I began a citizens’ movement to compel every local government to do what every family, business, school, hospital and place of worship did in response to our decline: adapt, innovate and downsize. While we met with success – causing 15 public referenda in which voters adopted measures that have saved taxpayers $26.1 million to date – we barely scratched the surface.
Perhaps my modest work made local politicians stand straighter, and local governments work harder. But it also illuminated the difficulty in achieving reform in periods of decline, when tensions run high and fear of change is heightened. In the confident atmosphere of today’s growth, politicians must now exchange individual interest for the collective good that will come from aligning our community with the future. For until we remove the millstone of excessive government that weighs us down, Western New York will never achieve the level of growth we all aspire to and deserve.
Spoonful of sugar
Travers’ “Mary Poppins” is, in the end, an examination of a family in peril. And it turns out that Mary’s cheery pluck isn’t meant to safeguard young Jane and Michael Banks. With her empathetic spirit and belief in the indispensable nature of love, Mary reawakens their cold, remote father to the true joys of parenthood and life.
As Western New York’s story continues to unfold, we do well to remember that the narrative we’re living – and, together, writing the next chapters for – is not a tale about saving our football team. It’s a story about saving ourselves. When we do, we’ll have created a powerful reason for the Buffalo Bills to stay put: a growing, forward-looking, vibrant community. And having our team here for future generations will be a welcome spoonful of sugar with which to swallow our past mistakes and move on.
Kevin Gaughan is a Buffalo attorney and civic leader.