He Will Overcome
Byron Brown’s plan to transform Buffalo

By Elizabeth Licata

Byron Brown
Byron Brown.
Photo by Jim Bush.
Mayor Byron Brown has a formidable analogy to offer for the battle to reverse Buffalo’s decline. Speaking of the civil rights struggle of the mid-twentieth century, he states, “Those people refused to be turned around, they refused to be turned back, and they overcame in the face of tremendous odds. The message that I am trying to present is that Buffalo—through people working together, even in the face of struggle—can overcome.”

Brown continues, “This was one of the greatest cities in this country at the turn of the twentieth century. This can again be one of the greatest cities in the country, but we have to respect our diversity, we have to work together in unity, we have to have a positive spirit and a positive attitude—a feeling like we’re not going to give up on the community and we’re going to keep marching forward.”

We are sitting in Brown’s office on a frigid February day. The mayor has just returned from addressing a Kennedy School of Government conference at Harvard University, and is about to travel to Baltimore to examine their success with the CitiStat government efficiency program. As Brown’s near-militant language in speaking of Buffalo’s economic recovery indicates, this isn’t a time for frivolities. I am here to find out what specific actions Brown’s government would take to bring Buffalo back from the brink. To do that, I have enlisted the help of other Spree writers, who have submitted the questions they would ask the mayor, if they were sitting in my chair today.

From our political satirist, the Guy on the 13th Floor:

How does he plan to establish a structurally balanced budget for the city, one in which recurring revenue is used for the city’s growing expenses, rather than getting more revenue from other sources such as the sharing of the sales tax penny and state bailouts?

Brown: “No large urban center, no large metropolitan government can make it on its own. You need state aid, you need federal aid, you need an active corporate and foundation community all contributing to making the municipal government, the city government, healthier. So I think for us to adopt the belief that we can make it as a city government without any assistance from the state or federal government would be absolutely wrong …

“What has happened in this state over the years is that aid to municipalities has been dramatically reduced, so money that was predictable that cities all across the state, including Buffalo, and New York City, and Syracuse, and Yonkers, money that they were counting on in their budgets, has been dramatically reduced by state government over the years.”

Just as he did throughout his campaign, Brown continues to tout the benefits of the CitiStat system, which would track such problems as chronic absenteeism in city employees, and cites Baltimore as a city that saved $100 million over four years with the system. It’s going to take more than computer tracking systems to stop the population drain, though, as Spree writer Maria Scrivani points out:

I have two kids in their mid-twenties who have no intention of launching their adult lives in Buffalo. They graduated from college and never returned. Does our new mayor have any new plans to work on making this town attractive to young people, not just for fun, but for a place to build a life?

Brown: “What she describes is not a phenomenon that’s unique to Buffalo. Oftentimes when young people go away to college, they make the decision to stay in the community where they’ve received their education and hopefully build some professional context. Now what we want to do in the case of young expatriates, and young people from elsewhere who are receiving their education here, is to stimulate our economy. That’s why we’ve made the number one priority of this administration creating an economic climate where business can grow here, and creating additional good paying jobs. Also, we can be an attractive place for companies that are looking for back office locations, that are looking for second locations, and that are looking to expand.

“We also want to create a comprehensive internship and job experience initiative similar to what has been done in other cities, where we take young people from as early as the ninth grade straight through to graduate school and try to match them with internship opportunities and job opportunities with professionals in the community.

“They begin early on to develop professional contacts, to see how different organizations in the community function, and to build the kind of relationships in the community that helps them to stay in the community. But we think that once we are able to strengthen the city economically and there are more job opportunities, that—because of the architectural heritage here, because of cultural attractions that are here, because of the relatively low cost of housing that is here—young people who have moved away and who have gotten their education elsewhere will begin to express greater interest and desire to come back home. There will be those economic opportunities, as well as social and cultural opportunities for them.”

Many Spree writers are curious about Brown’s motivations for supporting a downtown casino. The Guy asks, How is he planning for the loss of tax revenue from Seneca purchase of Buffalo land? Ronald Montesano asks: How can we stop it from spiraling out of control, and keep the district around the casino from going in the toilet? And Bruce Eaton wonders, Why do most politicians overlook the fact that casinos are net losers for communities like Buffalo?

Brown: “First of all, I’m not a major advocate for casino gaming at all. This was something that the governor brought to this state using a loophole in the state constitution that some would argue is not a loophole, that it is an illegality, but this was the governor’s initiative. And as a member of the state government, I could do one of two things: I could listen to the people or I could tell the people what the right thing was for them. I decided to listen to the people. The majority of the residents of my district that I heard from, who wrote letters, made phone calls, and emailed, said that they were more in favor of a casino than against a casino. The 60th senate district is probably the most regional district in Western New York [including Niagara Falls, Grand Island, and areas of Tonawanda and Buffalo] …”

Brown is no fan of the compact that allows the casinos to exist: “Would I have done it that way? No. I would have gone to referendum. I would have given the people the opportunity to decide.” But he also explains why he thinks the casino could work out:

“What are the benefits? 150 to 300 construction jobs will be created. I’ve been calling for fifty percent of those jobs to go to city of Buffalo residents. There will be 1,000 permanent casino jobs created. I’ve asked for fifty percent of those jobs to go to city of Buffalo residents. Now the people that work in the casino, they can legally never gamble in the casino, and they can’t go to the casino to eat after their work shift is over. So that will be 500-1,000 people in the community who will have money—that perhaps they did not have before—that they can spend in other venues in the community.

“The other thing that I’ve asked the state legislature for is that—unlike a Niagara Falls where there has been a lot of fighting over the local share of revenue—I have indicated that all of the local share of revenue should go exclusively to the city of Buffalo and should be reinvested for economic development programming and for housing, with a focus on middle and upper income residents that would strengthen our tax base. Also, some of it should be dedicated to our cultural community, so we could use some of these revenues to strengthen our culturals …

“Whether you like or dislike the casino, if the casino comes here, and to me it looks like it will come here because the Indians [nationwide] have been very successful in beating lawsuits that have been filled against casino development, we think that that can be one source of some dedicated revenue for the arts. … maybe that would be $3 million of dedicated revenue for the arts. But $3 million is better than zero dollars.”

Writer Kathryn Radeff has another question about Buffalo’s downtown: My dad owned a restaurant next to the Shea’s years ago, and I remember Main Street was full of excitement day and night … does he have a vision for bringing Main Street back?

Brown: “We think that reopening Main Street to traffic will help the theater district, will help the businesses that are along Main Street now, and will give us the ability to restore retail to Main Street, particularly in downtown Buffalo. We also believe that it will help us to make downtown housing more attractive, and it will accelerate the pace of bringing downtown housing online. The reopening of Main Street to traffic will also tie into waterfront development, because there is a plan that is proposed now to have Main Street actually begin at the waterfront, so people can go down to Main Street and get to the water’s edge. So we think from those three perspectives: waterfront development, restoring retail to downtown Buffalo and Main Street, and accelerating the pace of downtown housing.”

Finally, in the recognition that not everyone can be invited into the mayor’s office for a one-on-one chat about Buffalo’s future, I ask him,

What about accessibility and communication with the public? Are you aware of Buffalo’s blog writers; do you read them, and would you post or have a blog? Or what about town meetings, where you could meet with small groups?

Brown: “To be very honest, I think accessibility is critical, and we’re going to be finding new and cutting edge ways to be accessible to the citizens of Buffalo, but unfortunately in this city, there’s still a major digital divide. The majority of households in the city of Buffalo don’t have access to computers in their homes and don’t have the ability to blog and express their opinion that way. We need to have ways of communicating with the public that are accessible to all residents.

“We definitely want to have community meetings; we want to rotate those meetings to different parts of the community. We want to do evening meetings so people who are working can get to meetings. After years of working on it, the city’s master plan is completed, and I think we need to go out to the public and share that plan.”

We can only hope that the struggle for Buffalo does not take as many decades as the fight for civil rights—but it is good that we have a mayor who takes Buffalo’s problems this seriously.

FAST FACTS
Q: Where do you get your suits?
A: Well you know, every year, I take a trip to Italy, and—I’m kidding. Actually I buy suits from Get Dressed on Elmwood Avenue, from Michael Atardo and his wife Jane. Jane has been my tailor on some of my suits. I also purchase some suits at Sims.

Q: Do you have a favorite building or architectural landmark in Buffalo?
A: Absolutely. The HH Richardson Towers. That structure is magnificent from many different points of the city—you can see the two towers reaching up into the air, The state has finally allocated resources toward preserving those structures; it’s something that I certainly fought for as a member of the state legislature, and that my former colleague in the legislature Sam Hoyt also fought for.

Q: Where do you vacation with your family when you have an opportunity?
A: I’m a workaholic, so over the years the family hasn’t taken many vacations at all. We do things locally. We spend a lot of time in the community, we like to go to the movies, we like to rent movies, and we like to go out and eat together.

Q: What sort of music do you like?
A: I like jazz, I like classical, and I like ballads. So when my wife and I go out dancing, I can be seen singing in her ear. Sometimes not on key.

Q: When’s the last time you went out dancing?
A: Saturday at the Inaugural Ball. And I was singing in her ear.

Q: What were you singing?
A: “Three Times a Lady.”

Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree. Thanks to the Spree writers who submitted questions for the mayor, and many, many thanks to Spree intern Kia Wood for her transcription of this interview.


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