The 500 Block of Fail (UPDATED)

Buffalo loses convention that would have had a $1.06 million economic impact

Why? 

“Your Convention Center did not meet the expectations of the site selection committee and did not measure up to the level of convention centers visited in the other cities,” she wrote. “There was also concern from the site selection committee regarding the abundance of vacant storefronts surrounding the Convention Center and the host hotel.

“Our attendees place a high value on the ability to access bars, restaurants, shopping and other entertainment options within walking distance.”

Translation:  your convention center is a small, ugly bunker and your downtown has more surface parking than it has things to do. We’re going to piss off. 

Now, let’s all go back to patting ourselves on the back over last year’s preservation convention, implicitly celebrating a poverty of money and people so acute, we can’t afford to build new buildings.  Why were those people so charmed by our downtown, while the National Association of Sports Commissions finds our downtown to be specifically abhorrent? 

UPDATE: Given that the tone of the foregoing is quite negative and angry, I will reprint for you something I wrote last year, and briefly touched upon here.  

Yesterday, I posted about the Partnership for Public Space’s Tuesday presentation, which I found to be largely based on supposition, incomplete, and improperly presented to the assembled audience. I can’t believe the ECHDC spent money on that, and all to shut a couple of loudmouths up.

A camel is a horse designed by committee, so while it’s nice that we crowdsource the 9,000th iteration of what the waterfront should be, we need a real solution to downtown’s problems. The central business district is a wasteland. We’re now talking about creating a new little shopping district at the foot of Main Street out of whole cloth. But even if we build it, how do you ensure that they come, and that it’s sustainable? Just being there for when hockey or lacrosse games get out isn’t enough. Just being there in nice weather isn’t enough. It has to be something people want to come to, and people want to return to.

In an economically depressed and shrinking town where entrepreneurship is sorely needed – especially among disadvantaged populations – we can turn downtown Buffalo into something attractive not by centrally planning a waterfront, or doing a 2011 version of what really amounts to 50s era urban renewal. Two votes and a stroke of a pen is all that’s needed.

BuffaloCBD

The area outlined in red ought to be designated a special economic zone. And yes, I use that term specifically to liken it to what China has done to help build and modernize its industry.

Frankly, I wouldn’t be opposed to all of Erie and Niagara Counties being designated special economic zones, but for the purposes of this argument, I’m just focusing on what should be Buffalo’s downtown commercial core.

There are myriad problems with downtown and planning that need to be addressed – above all, modernization and coordination of parking that is relegated to ramps and underground lots. Every parcel within that red zone that isn’t built on should be shovel-ready land. The zoning code should require parking for new development to be adequate and hidden. This means extra cost, but the benefits of locating to the special economic zone means lower taxes and streamlined regulatory processes.

Within the zone, the county and state would waive their respective sales taxes. That means businesses outside the zone would still have to charge 8.75% on purchases, while businesses within the zone would be tax-free. It’d be like all of downtown being a duty-free shop.

No, it’s not fair to merchants outside the zone. But life isn’t fair. Furthermore, most of the merchants in Buffalo and outside the zone serve the surrounding residents and will still be patronized out of sheer convenience. Furthermore, the influx of people and businesses attracted by the SEZ will ultimately help those businesses thrive, as well.

Development would still be subject to Buffalo’s zoning and planning bureaucracies, but the rules would be simplified and permits & approval would be harmonized and streamlined. Property taxes would be reduced or eliminated, depending on the parcel. However, properties would be assessed not based on what they are (e.g., empty lots), but on what their value ought rightly be if developed.

By turning the central business district into a tax-free special economic zone, you give people 8.75 reasons to do business and conduct commerce in downtown Buffalo over anywhere else. Creation of a waterfront district while ignoring the decline and blight of the rest of downtown seems to me to be counterintuitive.

By executing a plan such as this, zoning the waterfront districts, and having the ECHDC or state spend public money solely on the improvement and installation of necessary infrastructure, transfer of title for all parcels to one single entity to speed development, institution of a design and zoning plan that cannot be deviated from, and – most importantly – remediating the environmental nightmares under the soil throughout ECHDC’s mandated districts, we can then auction the parcels off to qualified buyers.

That is how downtowns revive organically – through private initiative and private money. Government can do its job and merely provide the private sector with the proper environment to do business and build. It doesn’t get faster, quicker, or cheaper than that.

29 comments

  • Why do we need new buildings in order to have bars, restaurants, shopping, and entertainment? Seems like the boarded up storefronts could house those things just fine. I don’t get what preservation has to do with this.

    • We don’t need new buildings. We need to stop patting ourselves on the goddamned back over the existence of buildings while ignoring why so many of them are vacant.

      Hardware is useless without software.

  • Alan,
    I fully agree that downtown is a wasteland, and that thing is an ugly bunker from hell. Yes, we need a new one. Yes, we need better development. Yes, we need entrepreneurs.

    Here is the only thing I would say: we can’t be all things to all people. I would guess that The National Association of Sports Commissions is looking for different thing to do than the Preservation people. So while you have written is all true, I think they are a bad group to compare.

    Although it is ironic, that the preservation people are willing to walk all over a city to get what they want, while the Sports people want their shit close by.

  • If you can find a real person to fit that Straw-man suit you just made up, I’d like to know who it is. Go on… I want a name.

  • Oh I think we need a new building. It makes me think of a prison.

    And yes, we need businesses and jobs, etc. I wasn’t disagreeing with you.

  • What “straw-man suit”?

  • Ok, but I still don’t see how the two are necessarily related. There’s nothing stopping people from celebrating our architectural legacy while also lamenting the fact that so many buildings are vacant. And championing preservation or architectural tourism doesn’t preclude attending to larger, structural economic problems.

  • Praising buildings, “sense of place”.

    These are influencers, opinion leaders in the field of historic preservation, cultural tourism, architecture history, and we’re going to show them around our community, knock their socks off and send them back to their respective communities singing Buffalo’s praises and generating really powerful word of mouth that I think will be felt, the impact will be felt for years to come,” said Healy.”

    Incredible buildings!

    Lots to see downtown, not very much to do.

    I think having the preservationist people here was great. But when we can’t attract non-architectural conventions because of the condition of our downtown, I think we need to examine that.

  • Alan-

    I totally agree with you that throughout the region, certain areas need to be designated as redevelopment areas in which incentives are available for reinvestment, the permitting process is streamlined, and the copmmitment to redevelopment is virtually unquestioned and therefore any potential roadblocks are eliminated.
    Retrofitting our older business districts and turning them into mixed use activity centers need a true commitment from all municipalities and elected officials. We cannot afford to continue to question whether or not redevelopment is economic development; it is, and it’s about time that we get moving on it.

  • If you want to see everything that’s wrong with the process of rebuilding and upgrading vacant spaces, go to Buffalo Rising and their recent article on the rehabbing of a building at Main and Mohawk into a law office. It used to be a Chinese take out joint, with cardboard patching over a broken window, that’s how decrepit it was.

    Well, work is underway, the developer is putting in $1.5MM to turn this into something nice, yet the freaks, macadamias and other assorted kooks who post on that site are arguing about TINTED windows, of all things! Yeah, that vacant shell which had the look and feel of ’44 Dresden was sooooooooo much better lol!

  • BP – I see you’re still pushing the sales tax free zone. A little shocking in light of your comments about how business is treated on the Acropoversy post. But you do make an agreeable point that something needs to happen.

    A couple of negative implications of this plan would be:

    1- It would benefit the land owners downtown, who for the most part, have done little with the surface parking lots. The plan would essentially double or triple the value of their land overnight.

    A solution could be to change the property tax structure in this zone for only surface lots to be valued at the average building size in the zone. So if a surface lot of 43K square feet on average of the zone has a building that would be on average 12 stories, that lot would be taxed as a similar 12 story building until something was built.

    To ensure that an owner does not put up a 1 story warehouse, you change the code to allow for only specific building types (size mostly) to be built inside of the zone as well.

    Not only would this solve the ‘free ride’ issue of parking lot owners, it would tie into your new development parking regulations and ensure that the zone is built out with the proper density.

    2 – It would benefit out of town merchants who have the ability to locate into the zone over a business owner who has been ‘slogging’ it in other parts of the city.

    A solution would be to give first right of refusal to locally owned business (order determined by years established) for a tax free ‘permit’ if you will. Businesses already located in the zone as of 2011 would be automatically included. If your hypothesis of businesses outside of the zone server the local communities is true, they _should_ keep those locations open as well.

    3 – Since the zone is to attract tourism, while each business in the zone would have a sales tax free opportunity, they should be responsible for the majority of the Visit Buffalo Niagara budget. Say 75%..who knows..

    A similar policy in San Diego was done, as well as Seattle I think, to fund a convention center expansion. It only included the hotels but essentially the closer you were to the convention center the more you paid for the project.

    Just some ideas……

  • I’m not sure if the economic impact (eg, more conventions, increased tourism, etc.) of having “a cool downtown” (eg, state of the art convention center, shopping, dining, etc.) outweighs the cost of making a cool downtown (eg, building a convention center, tax breaks for development). In the grand scheme of economic development, what does it matter where people shop, eat dinner or see a hockey game? When was the last time anything significat was developed in downtown Buffalo without massive government assistance – HSBC Center, First Niagara Arena, Coca Cola Field, the Federal Courthouse, Statler Redevelopment, Canalside? Why do we fixate on this square mile instead of focusing of attracting global employers? Sunk cost bias.

  • @Brian

    Why do we fixate on this square mile instead of focusing of attracting global employers?

    I think the answer is pretty simple. Improving downtown to be something that produces a positive economic impact, while distant, is somewhat possible. It is something that could be implemented by the local government.

    On the flip side, finding global employers is so far from the realm of possibility, it should not be seriously considered at the moment.

    Jim Hearney wrote a great post on the business climate in WNY. (http://www.investigativepost.org/2012/02/22/cuomos-billion-dollar-plan/)

    Moreover, there aren’t many “big fish” to lure, he said. There is the odd plant with 1,000 jobs, but Finkle said they almost invariably end up in “low wage, right-to-work states.” These days “a big deal is a 150 person employer.”

    Global Employers are never going to come to Buffalo in our lifetime. Just not.gonna.happen. But making Buffalo into a regional economy where there is shit to do and people would not mind spending a weekend is possible. You create that and down the line Buffalo work on fixing all of the other shit that is broken and possibly land a global employer when those who are kids now turn 30.

  • @Lefty – Investing in more development and tax breaks into downtown Buffalo is throwing good money after bad. We put a mall into downtown Buffalo. We built a subway into downtown Buffalo. Taxpayers subsidized the Main Place Tower and HSBC Tower. We built a baseball stadium and a hockey arena. We built a pedestrian mall. The Result? We can’t even land an amateur sporting event from an organization I’ve never heard of before because our downtown wasn’t happening enough. Additionally, why should I or anyone care if there is “shit to do” downtown? Does it matter if the Cheesecake Factory is at the Galleria Mall or on the waterfront?

  • @Brian,

    Tax breaks are not throwing good money away if done right. It is forsaking money that could be collected in exchange for spin off development. I know they are managed correctly but you’re talking about philosophy and not implementation if I understand you correctly.

    To suggest that you should not care if their is ‘shit to do’ downtown is shortsighted in my opinion. The reason is why the region does not rely on downtown being an economic engine, the region is weighed down by downtown being anemic in nature.

    As for never hearing about the organization who rejected Buffalo, that does not matter as well. Do you you think the cities where they decided to go know about them either? The answer is no but they’re going to be spending money there and not in WNY. That is all that matters. Do you think any city that hosts a convention gives a shit as to the notoriety of the conventions that come there? The answer is no because the money is the same.

    The Cheesecake Factory has no issues filling the tables at the Galleria Mall. The establishments downtown do. That matters.

    Additionally, a thriving downtown…hell a downtown that does not suck..matters to specific demographics that the COB needs to focus on. Those being young folks without kids and empty nestors. Neither want to live in the burbs by and large and without an option in the region for them, they move to other region. That matters.

    Of course, we could take the view that nothing done is going to make a damn bit of difference and just say fuck it and hold out for the unrealistic goal of global employers like yourself.

  • @Lefty:
    We just disagree on this. In my estimation, downtown, as a place, does not matter. Our community has already made numerous and significant investments trying to make downtown into a lively metropolitan, and it hasn’t worked. I think the region is weighed down by downtown, but only because we have focused so much time, money and energy into trying to turn it into a cool place. My opinion we need to focus that time, money and energy into attracting big businesses into the region. But we disagree and debating on a blog post isn’t going to change either of ours opinions.

  • @Brian,

    I think discourse, event between strangers, is productive and can modify outlook in some cases. I would be interested in the your thoughts on how the region can attract big business. It appears to me that you are against subsidies and you seem versed enough to assume you know the business climate in the region. So how do you attract big business? Just what big business is going to want to relocate into the area with the tax and labor climate? I just don’t see it.

  • I don’t know anyone who pats themselves on the back for the existance of buildings while ignoring why they’re vacant. I certainly know people who like old buildings… but I can’t think of a single person who has never wondered why they’re vacant.

  • @Lefty – To be honest, I think the claim that high taxes and an unfriendly labor climate are the primary reasons why Buffalo has had economic trouble is just a political talking point by those who don’t like unions or a fair tax rate. Lots of places with high tax rates are doing much better than Buffalo and places with low tax rates are doing worse. High taxes may be as much a result of a poor economy as the cause.
    In my opinion, our community should focus on eliminating some state laws that drive higher business costs, such as the scaffolding law. We also need to make the economic development process transparent and predictable…for instance, all manufacturers that have high energy costs should get low cost energy by filling out a form, not just those that hire a lobbyest with a friend at NYPA. We should also make sure our workforce is trained for the type of jobs that our area can attract.

  • @Alan – I’m not quite sure how BRO readers arguing about windows on an internet article is an impediment to economic development…I’m sure both sides have valid points. Our elected officials and business community arguing about the merits of a Bass Pro for five years instead of working together on things that agree upon is the impediment.

  • Yeah, how about those people? Each and every one of whom is known factually to you to not care on whit about poverty, economics, the economics of poverty, or anything BUT tinted windows. You could have made your entirely valid point about not snagging a conference without dropping an insult to the preservationists, but… but you really can’t, can you?

  • They would prefer a boarded-up building to a renovated one because the boarded-up building is more “in keeping with the history of the street”.

    I, frankly, don’t give anywhere near as big a shit about hardware as I do about software.

  • Who would? Name a “they.”

  • @Brian,

    If you think unions and the tax structure in the region does not impact the anemic nature of the business sector…I just do not know what to say.

    While there are lots of places with a higher tax rate, those places are not Buffalo. They have intangibles that Buffalo does not. It could be location, weather or just better places to be in general. For example, people have tried to suggest that NYC ‘works’ and Buffalo should be able to do the same as they are in the same state. To me that is a bit naive. NYC has so much more going on and that is why it is different.

    A start up is going to be willing to pay the higher tax rate to be in a different and better environment. That environment covers several items.

    I like the idea of working with local energy sources to help industry. But the idea of ‘training the workforce’ is just as meaningless as a politician saying they are going to ‘fight for jobs’. The jobs that would be impacted by job training programs are never going to come back. That is a waste of resources. Manufacturing is not going to come back.

  • @Lefty –
    Every region has pro’s and con’s. NYS (including Buffalo) has a relatively higher tax rate – certainly that is not helpful. I don’t think it is anywhere near as out of line as an organization such as Unshackle upstate says it is, nor that it is that great of an impediment. That higher tax rate buys us things other places don’t have, such as a better educated workforce.

    Our community spent 5 years arguing about the pro’s and con’s of Bass Pro. Instead, imagine a scenerio where our community’s leaders spent half that much time and energy putting together a plan to make older homes more energy efficient. Homeowners would save money by having lower energy bills and we could have created jobs to make those home improvements. Instead of our money leaving the region to go to energy suppliers, it goes to local employees making homes more energy efficient. But in our reality of fail, this community let all the air gets sucked out of the economic development conversation because we were debating what is essentially a quality of life issue – making the waterfront a fun place – instead of economic development issues.

    My premise, which may be fundamentally flawed, is that a community can only do so much at one time. Our community spends too much time on the divisive, unproductive things at the expense of the agreeable things (that still needs time and compromise to come to fruition).

  • “The commenters on BRO” Pretty weak.

    By-the-by, your hardware/software metaphor is also pretty weak, since of course the most elegant OS or app in the world still needs something to run on. You prefer to write code, that’s great; others are hardware architects. Neither has much use without the other.

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