Interview: Activist Aaron Bartley

Aaron Bartley is arguably Buffalo’s leading community activist, someone who has worked in the trenches since his college days.

Bartley is a Buffalo native and graduate of City Honors, Swarthmore College and Harvard Law School. While at Harvard co-founded the Harvard Living Wage Campaign in support of the university’s service workers. He then served as labor organizer in SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign in Boston.

Eight years ago, Bartley co-founded People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo), which has focused on organizing residents of the city’s West Side to improve employment opportunities and housing and other neighborhood conditions. PUSH Buffalo has been in the vanguard of a resurgent activist movement in the city.

Bartley, 37, has taken on a wider role in the community in recent years. Most notably, he serves on the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo with guiding $1 billion in economic development aid to the region.

He was interviewed Aug. 30 by Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney.

A 4 minute summary of the interview highlights appears above. The full 20-minute interview is posted deeper in this interview.

Here is the transcript of the interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Heaney: Let’s talk first about the governor’s proposed $1 billion rescue plan for the Western New York economy. For readers or viewers weren’t up on all the details, briefly give us an overview of what the mission of that program is as you understand it.

Bartley: The governor made that commitment earlier this year after the Western New York Regional Economic Council had been through a successful round of planning. You probably remember that Western New York won the big prize the first time around with Regional Council by submitting a plan for growth of our economic sectors in the region. The governor really liked that plan, liked the focus on smart growth, meaning that we can’t sprawl as a region anymore. Entrepreneurship, workforce development, and came back and surprised everybody under the sun, no one knew this was coming, and said I’m gonna double up on a commitment put $1 billion on the table.

Now that billion dollars comes with some strings; it means we have to be very intentional and deliberate about how we spend it. And that has necessitated two rounds of planning, it’s been a few months (and) we haven’t spent a dime of it, but that’s because we worked with people like the Brookings Institution in Washington, and now a consultant that works all around the world called McKinsey and Company, to think about what are the economic sectors, is it tourism, is it “eds and meds,” as they say where this money belongs.

Heaney: Talk a little bit about what has transpired since the big splash. The whole effort seems to have gone. not exactly underground, but it has not been a high-profile process since the splash. What is going on in the background and what’s the next thing that we’ll see?

Bartley: Some great planning has been happening with some of the leading thinkers about cities and regions in the country. So Bruce Katz came in from Brookings Institution looked at the plans that we have come up with which focused on sectors like advanced manufacturing, tourism, health care and really tried to hone in on some actual strategies that are actionable.

What that means now is that by November, this council has been mandated to come with a plan for the governor that has three very actionable initiatives, meaning there’s a business plan for them, there are steps that are logical to get to the end of producing jobs that are living-wage jobs, high-quality jobs for the region. So we’re spending a lot of time right now looking at things like Niagara Falls and the fact that eight million people come through this region every year. It’s really second in the country as a tourist destination spot, and yet the average stay is only four hours before they go to Canada, before they go to Toronto. What are the factors that prevent them, or that persuade them that this region is not worth him learning about?

Heaney: This action plan is due when?

Bartley: That’s due in November.

Heaney: How much of this is being done through a public process as opposed to more private sessions?

Bartley: Every Regional Council meeting, with maybe with one executive committee session exception, has been public, and actually I encourage more folks to come down and look and see the work and the conversation that goes on around the pressing issues that face this region like the high unemployment rate and the fact that we’re really still figuring out how to make that turn away from being a post-industrial economy where we lost all of our jobs.

Heaney: How do you think how do you think the bulk of that billion ought to be spent? I want to preface this question by saying I’ve had several people on here already, like Allison Duwe and Jim Allen, folks who are on opposite ends of the economic development spectrum, and there was some commonality in their answers. They don’t think the $1 billion ought to be spent chasing companies to relocate here, they don’t think it should be focused on big mega-projects, but rather focused on entrepreneurship, more grass-roots type economic development. I’m assuming that that’s in line with your thinking, but in a nutshell, what should the focus of this effort be?

Bartley: First of all, I concur with both Allison and Jim, and to me the idea that encapsulates that is called high road development, meaning that we’re not chasing minimum-wage jobs, we’re not chasing a company that says “If you give us 200-million dollar we will put down a factory that may or may not be here in five years.” Those models for the most part are all outmoded, and I’ve been surprised that on the council there is consensus around that, that we have to build on our assets,whether it’s the endless waterfront assets that we have in this region whether it’s the Olmsted Parks, whether it’s our arts sector, whether it’s the neighborhoods that have a lot of fabric left in them, whether it’s Niagara Falls, and it starts really from an inventory of those assets, and that’s what the whole planning process has been built around.

Heaney: The council has approximately 20 people on the council. You’re one of a handful of people on it I would consider progressive –  you’ve got your traditional bankers, economic development types, politicians. How much of a concern do you have that at the end of the day it’s going to be business as usual, or it’s going to be something less than a progressive approach? How much of a concern do you have that at the end of the day this is going to devolve into cutting deals so politicians can attend ribbon cuttings?

Bartley: I’ve got to say that we have to remain vigilant about those issues, that’s the way we’ve been thinking about economic development in this region for a long time. I think part of my presence on the council is to look out for falling back into that mode where it’s just cut a check for subsidy, hope the corporation stays, don’t be overly concerned about whether they’re good jobs or not good jobs.

But what I would report is that I’ve been surprised at the level of consensus from, you know, the Chamber of Commerce leadership, say an Andrew Rudnick, to me, about the need to think carefully about things like land use in the region; the fact that we can’t sprawl; we cannot be building road after road on the periphery this region and expect that we can pay our bills, because it’s expensive to do that; to expect that we can have vital communities because that developmental pattern we know what it leads to, it leads to abandonment at the core and the lack of vitality, and on those issues, on where our Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Jamestown, where those cities need to go, there’s been pretty broad consensus and the consensus is invest at the core of those cities, invest strategically in certain industries that seem to be growing, but also really think about whether you are creating good jobs, living wage jobs or are you creating low-grade jobs that are a dead end.

Heaney: Let’s talk one other economic development issue. You played a small role in the process that led to the city on Wednesday deciding that the proposal to redevelop Webster block would go to the Buffalo Sabres. You have some insights – off-camera you told me you thought this was really kind of historic based on the terms that were negotiated, so what’s different about this? What’s good about this?

Bartley: I do think it’s a big moment and I think it’s a big moment because, again, for decades we’ve been holding out the idea that if we give $100 million to a Bass Pro – or fill in the blank – then we’re going to be a whole city again, it’s going to form the core of the new Buffalo. What this deal shows is that there are developers, in this case the Buffalo Sabres, that want to be in Buffalo, we don’t have to pay to be here.

Heaney: So there’s an absence of subsidy.

Bartley: There’s an absence of subsidy, number one. Number two is that the city, and I have to credit the mayor for negotiating well, we got some terms that I’m not used to seeing in these sorts of agreements. We got a living-wage commitment. It’s not for every job on that campus, but it is a substantial turn of events, we have living-wage language in this agreement. We got some strong minority and women hiring goals, we got some local hiring goals, meaning there’s going be a way for people in the neighborhoods I work in, like the West Side of Buffalo, where every day – and this is going to contradict some of the rhetoric that’s out there and in common-speak – but I see people who want to go to work every day on the West Side of Buffalo, who have the capacity to do work every day, and there aren’t jobs in our neighborhood. When I look at an agreement like this, I see a possibility of using this as leverage to say, “Well, you want to be in our city, you’re growing in our city, this is a pathway to place some people in our neighborhood into those jobs downtown.”

Heaney: Some of the terms you outlined, when they were proposed for Canal Side a couple years ago by a coalition you were a part of, really set off a firestorm, there was a lot of pushback. How much of this do you think is Sabres owner Terry Pegula just playing ball?

Bartley: I gave credit to the mayor, and I think the real credit is also due to groups like the Coalition For Economic Justice and the Partnership for the Public Good that have been putting these ideas out there for years. You know, Pegula clearly wanted to do something big and we know that he has resources obviously. Apparently he has an openness to these ideas and an openness to working with the community. I was impressed, I’d say personally, as they were making their presentation to the committee that their project manager said openly, “Look, we know this may not be the perfect architectural design,” and if you read Buffalo’s blogs you know there are a million armchair architects in Buffalo and he said, “Look, I’m open to ideas. You know we’ll have a public charrette on what the community thinks this building should look like, what the amenities should be.” I thought that was a fresh perspective to come from a developer and I think that something that impressed the committee.

Heaney: Let’s shift to what you do day in and day out, which is PUSH Buffalo. Explain your mission.

Bartley: PUSH began eight years ago with the mindset that there are a whole bunch of people in Buffalo’s poor neighborhoods. They have the capacity to work had to drive to work and are also fed up with things like vacant housing, with high utility bills, with declining neighborhood conditions, and they’re willing to fight to change those things.

Heaney: What sort of things can you point to by way of accomplishments? And I will say that you guys put up a really mean picket line. For you viewers at home, I think PUSH Buffalo has really set the bar for intelligent militancy in the city. There are armchair activists and there are in-the-street activists and you guys are definitely in the streets. But in terms of concrete accomplishments, name two or three things that you have actually done. 

Bartley: First of all, we created a whole bunch of affordable housing that’s greener than just about any housing in this country, and one of the houses we’ve created where a longtime community activist living at the street level in the neighborhoods, she’s now living in the greenest home in the region. Now we tout that not because we’re proud of creating a luxury home, but because we think that there’s a crisis of energy and there’s a crisis of joblessness in this region and we can tackle those two crises together, and that means getting every house in this region insulated.

We now have a regionwide weatherization program that PUSH is running called Green Jobs for Green New York,where not just people on the West Side, but any homeowner in Erie County can call us and learn about how to get their home insulated without any upfront capital. They can get it financed right onto their utility bill and live in a more comfortable environment, save money on utility bills, and save carbon to help combat climate change. That’s a program that I think we’re proud of because it came from out of that fight, out of those pickets, out of not being afraid to call people out, and now it’s hundreds of millions of dollars statewide that are going to combat the problem of uninsulated homes.

Heaney: Talk to me a little bit about the political evolution. Militancy was your hallmark early on. You seem to be picking spots more now. You seem to be getting along better with the mayor. You seem to be getting along better with this governor than previous governors – and not getting along so well with energy companies. I guess the question is “Has PUSH gotten soft?’

Bartley: No, and I’m going to say that picking spots has always been our strategy. You honed in on it. One of our spots was Governor Patacki, when the state had left 1,500 homes abandoned in the region. We put his face on those homes. We put big portraits of the governor all across Buffalo. You know, we weren’t afraid to call him out.

Likewise with the mayor a few years ago, we weren’t happy with the way the housing policy and the focus on demolition and not rehabilitation was going. We had to campaign around that. In both of those cases, the state and the city have become very active partners. The mayor, I think his housing and neighborhood policies have really highlighted the need for district investment and he’s worked with us on creating new parks and new housing.

That’s not the case with, for example, David Smith of National Fuel, where we feel they have millions of dollars that are coming from customer funds that every customer in this region pays for. And we had some really good ideas on how that money should be spent better. It was a taxpayer revolt sort of question where this is our money, this could be going to weatherize homes across the region, get them utility bills down, and there’s been no dialogue. So we’re going to keep at him as long as it takes to start that dialogue.

Heaney: Let me touch on a couple of political questions. Allison Duwe from the Coalition for Economic Justice was on recently and offered the opinion that she does not think that the community leadership,  politicians in particular, are very kind toward progressive politics, progressive public policy. Yes, no?

Bartley: Allison’s a good friend but I’m going to disagree a little bit with the state of the progressive movement in Western New York. I’m seeing more electeds use words like “living wage.” In fact, they made it into an agreement that the mayor signed yesterday. I’m seeing more electeds talk about local hiring. I’m seeing more electeds talk about green building standards. And I don’t think that’s an accident; I think it comes out of people’s movement for lack of a better term that has leadership in the nonprofit level, whether it’s the Partnership for the Public Good or the Coalition for Economic Justice or the Clean Air Coalition. These are groups that in the last five years you may not have even heard of them before that. Some of them didn’t exist. Now I think they’re on a lot of electeds’ radar and they’re shaping the debate and a lot of electeds are responding to that. Obviously we have a long way to go. You know it’s not a paradise for people with progressive ideas, but I think it’s turning the right way.

Heaney: Let me end with two related questions, and it’s again a question I’ve posed to previous guests. Is it time for people in the activist/progressive community to start to run for public office? And related to that, when I talk to people about who should be the next mayor, your name comes up as often as anybody’s. So is it time for activists to become elected officials and are you potentially part of that crowd that makes the shift?

Bartley: I appreciate the thought and I hear chatter from time to time but I’ll put any rumors to rest. I am not launching a mayoral campaign. However, I do think that a lot of us have to step up as leaders in the community in the coming years and say, “This is our community.” There’s a natural progression of leadership in I think in particular the nonprofit sector is seeding and cultivating a lot of that leadership. There’s a lot of young folks –whether it’s the environmental movement, whether it’s labor, whether it’s local independent business with a group like Buffalo First – where you look at a leader like Sarah Bishop and, wow, she’s got a lot of capacity as a leader to put a new face, a new set of values on this region. I’m excited about the next 10 years for that reason.

Heaney: In terms of your aspirations, is mayor out of the question or something to perhaps consider at some point?

Bartley: I got going with PUSH with Eric Walker eight years ago thinking, “I want to see something change tangibly in these neighborhoods, I want to see pathways to employment, I want to see people living in comfortable, safe homes.” I’m seeing some of that happen, but not enough to leave that fight yet. And frankly I think it’ll take 10 more years before I can start thinking about what comes next.

Heaney: Well at 37 you’ve got some years ahead of you.