Outrages & Insights
Four of downtown’s biggest structures are still mostly empty.
Photos by Jean-Pierre Thimot; Heaney photo by kc kratt
Jim Heaney is editor of Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center based in Buffalo.
I’m tired of “renaissance” as a descriptor for what’s happening downtown.
Yes, the region as a whole, including downtown, is doing better than it was a decade or two ago. But like the rest of Western New York, that’s not to say things are great—and it’s certainly not a renaissance.
There are more bars and restaurants. And the housing market seems to be doing well, although I don’t know who can afford some of the rents. But retail space continues to languish and the office vacancy rate tops twenty percent. How could it not, with four of downtown’s largest buildings—the former homes of HSBC, AM&A’s, Trico, and the Statler—standing empty?
The sad truth is that much downtown construction has been subsidized by taxpayers. Most of the new resulting space hasn’t added jobs to the workforce but rather shifted them from elsewhere.
Speaking of development, the Pegulas have hired consultants to consider what to do about the football stadium and hockey arena their teams play in. I’m not a big fan of Terry and Kim—not for their track record as frackers in Pennsylvania or for the way they’ve managed their sports franchises here—but I give them credit for not pounding the table and demanding a new football stadium as Jerry Jones would like them to do. As I’ve noted in this column previously, the region has much more pressing capital needs than a new playground for the Bills. And while the hockey arena has been around long enough to warrant some updating, it ought to be done on the team’s dime.
In short, if the Pegulas feel the need for improved digs for their teams, well, they’re billionaires capable of writing the checks. We taxpayers have better ways to spend our money.
The bad news for the Tesla factory in South Buffalo keeps on a-coming. Layoffs appear to be on the horizon at the time of this writing. That represents a step in the wrong direction, considering the company is obligated to start meeting job-creation goals or face penalties of $41.2 million a year. That’s only fair, mind you, given the state’s investment of $750 million to build and help equip the facility. There was a lot of excitement back in 2014 when state officials announced SolarCity was coming to town, but it’s been one problem after another since then.
From the start, the company has been drowning in red ink. The losses prompted Tesla, SolarCity’s sister company, to absorb it two years ago. The state pressed contractors to build the plant ASAP, only to see the facility sit vacant for a spell because Tesla was slow to ramp up operations. The company’s commitment to create 1,460 jobs at the factory was scaled back to 500, with a pledge to make up the difference with other jobs elsewhere.
Now, Tesla is laying off seven percent of its workforce nationally and it appears likely the Buffalo plant will not escape unscathed.
None of this surprises me. The project has been a high-risk venture since the beginning. The solar market is volatile and the company’s finances have always been shaky. The supposed payoff is the seeding of a solar energy industry in Western New York. There’s scant evidence of any significant spin-off activity, however.
What we have instead is a financially ailing company facing an uncertain future operating in what appears to be a half-empty plant. Things may turn around, but right now the project’s legacy is the bid rigging scandal that has become synonymous with the Buffalo Billion. Taxpayers deserve a better return on their massive investment.
All nine seats on the Buffalo Board of Education are up for election this May—which only happens every fifteen years—and I’m curious as to whether we’ll see the usual stampede of candidates. The incumbents can point to improved student achievement. The number of city schools deemed in good standing with the state education department has grown from fifteen to thirty-seven in the past three years. (That’s out of fifty schools.) The number of schools in receivership has dropped from twenty-five to just three. That’s progress that I’m sure the incumbents will be sure to point out. Fair enough.
But keep in mind that fewer than four in ten Buffalo students are scoring at proficient levels in reading, writing, and math, and many graduates require remedial assistance when they start college or job training programs. In other words, the district continues to graduate kids not equipped to function in the real world.
The next board will oversee another round of negotiations with the Buffalo Teachers Federation, and, speaking as one city voter, I want to know where candidates stand on key contract matters. Starting teacher pay needs to be increased to improve the district’s ability to recruit talented new teachers. Gold-plated health insurance for active, and especially retired teachers, needs to be brought back to earth and the savings spent on programs that benefit students. And seniority in making teacher assignments needs to be modified or eliminated to ensure the students needing the best teachers get them.
The current board did not insist on those reforms. The next one should.