Buffalo is not Denver. Darn.

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

I spent three-and-a-half days in Denver recently while on vacation in Colorado, which is a beautiful state. I couldn’t have come away more impressed with the city.

First, what’s there:

  • An inviting, tree-lined downtown pedestrian mall that has block after block of stores, restaurants and people.

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  • A second thriving section of downtown, known as LoDo, anchored by a striking baseball stadium and a train station under restoration. (Imagine that.)
  • An ample stock of historic buildings, many of them nifty brick structures.
  • A light rail system that actually goes someplace.
  • More than 200 parks, plus several municipal parks operated outside the city limits. You may have heard of one of them: Red Rocks.
  • A well-thought-out grid that clusters activities. Museums grouped with a gorgeous public library. The state capital across a beautiful greenway from city hall. An eye-catching convention center adjacent to a performing arts center. A football stadium and hockey arena located within a stone’s throw of each other, right off the interstate highway.

Then there’s what’s not there.

Slums. At least not adjacent to downtown. And believe me, I went looking. (My wife was just thrilled about my hunt. I mean, who doesn’t want to join their spouse driving around the city looking for urban decay?)

Oh, I found a stretch that was a little rough. But boarded up houses? Empty lots? Abject poverty? Nope.

I’ll grant you Denver has some things going for it, starting with a more vibrant economy and its status as the state capital. But it’s also evident that the city has benefitted from leadership that knows what it’s doing and a sound governance structure that includes non-partisan elections and a unified city and county government.

All the while I’m on vacation, I’m reading The Buffalo News, WGRZ and Artvoice on my iPhone to stay abreast of what’s happening back at the ranch. I learn about the lieutenant governor coming to town to continue the charade of Cuomo-driven improvements to the Peace Bridge; Mark Poloncarz’s endorsement of Byron Brown, a mayor he has little use for; the latest shenanigans at the Erie County Water Authority; and the compelled testimony by city officials about how they play the patronage game.

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For added effect, upon my return, I walked down the Main Street pedestrian mall. You know, the one with few people and an aging infrastructure the NFTA has done practically nothing to upgrade since the rail line opened some 30 years ago.

Sigh.

It’s not like I needed to go all the way to Denver to know this town is in tough shape. But a few days in the Mile High City served as a good reminder of how bad off we are.

There’s a growing sense that Buffalo is on its way back. I suppose in some ways, things are improving, at least cosmetically. The state is building Canalside. The Sabres are constructing Harbor Center. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus continues to grow, although most of the expansion is the result of pirating jobs from elsewhere within the region.

But to a large degree, things are looking up only because we’re so down, because expectations have been so lowered that, for example, restoring traffic to one block of Main Street is regarded as major progress.

Progress? Consider that our public high schools are graduating fewer than half its students. That city government and its schools are a financial ward of the state. That employment is down among city residents the past five years. That many inner-city neighborhoods are one part ghost town, one part battlefield.

Progress? Yeah, that’s the ticket.

To me, it goes back to leadership, and I’m not seeing much of here in Buffalo.

Oh, Brian Higgins and Mark Poloncarz have their moments. But the city remains politically in the clutches of a Democratic Party monopoly that has long focused on the petty and self-serving at expense of the greater public good.

Some in the corporate community rise to the occasion – on occasion. But far too often, its so-called leaders are cozying up to the political elites in search of their next government contract or development subsidy. Or they’re simply trying to stay out of harm’s way.

There is a cadre of competent leaders in the ranks of the city’s fledgling activist community, but they are focused on their own causes and organizations and have yet to step into the political arena.

The moral of the story? If you’re in Buffalo and looking for enlightened leadership, to quote Horace Greeley, “Look west, young man.” Maybe Denver.

(OK, I know I depressed you. Heck, I depressed myself. So here’s a make up.)