Third in a three-part series.
Western New York has never adopted a community benefits agreement the likes of which is being proposed for a new Buffalo Bills stadium.
Twice, coalitions of community groups and elected officials have tried to attach CBAs to big, taxpayer-funded development projects in Buffalo.
Those efforts — the first for Canalside, the second for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus — yielded mixed results: Both campaigns coaxed concessions from developers, but neither yielded the kind of legally binding agreement that has become common in other communities across the country over the past 20 years.
Now, many of the same groups are seeking a CBA for a new Buffalo Bills stadium, hoping the third try will be the charm.
“A community benefits agreement is a negotiated agreement — between developers and local community groups, labor unions, faith groups — that sets out benefits that will improve local neighborhoods and lives for local residents,” Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director of the Partnership for the Public Good, told Investigative Post.
Those benefits usually include benchmarks for hiring and contracting locally, engaging minority- and women-owned businesses, and paying a good wage. Some CBAs also call for developers to fund housing and educational programs, as well as parks, community centers, and other community improvements.
Our series on community benefit agreements
- Wednesday: How CBAs work in other cities. Read.
- Thursday: Lawmaker proposes a CBA for Bills stadium. Read.
- Today: WNY has never had a CBA for a major project.
Partnership for the Public Good is one of several community groups, including the Coalition for Economic Justice and PUSH Buffalo, that are advocating for a CBA with the Bills. Their efforts are supported by Erie County Legislature Chair April Baskin and State Senator Sean Ryan, whose district includes the site of the current and the proposed future stadium in Orchard Park.
If the coalition succeeds, Erie County will join a long list of communities — Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, to name a few — that have won CBAs from the professional sports teams they host.
John Goldstein, who has consulted with dozens of community groups seeking CBAs, keeps a database of more than 350 such campaigns across the country over the past 20 years. The national CBA movement, Goldstein said, developed as a response to a “mechanism” of steering public money to private projects that “became so corrupt everywhere.”
“A lot of this work is not just about winning agreements,” he told Investigative Post. “It’s about changing how development works in a local community.”
The Canalside campaign
The first local attempt at a CBA arose in 2009, in response to the public debate over development of Canalside. At the time, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. — the state development agency overseeing the project — was pushing a plan to bring BassPro to the waterfront to anchor development there.
Erie Canal Harbor proposed massive public subsidies to lure the big-box sporting goods retailer. The plan had the support of Mayor Byron Brown and other elected officials, as well as influential business people like Robert Rich Jr., whose friendship with BassPro’s CEO was reported to be the origin of the proposal.
Partnership for the Public Good, Coalition for Economic Justice and PUSH Buffalo were part of a coalition called the Canalside Community Alliance, which criticized the proposed subsidies for BassPro, while advancing a CBA for whatever development plan was ultimately adopted.
The majority of Buffalo’s Common Council, led by Mickey Kearns and Michael LoCurto, supported the alliance’s CBA proposal. The mayor opposed it and tried to replace it with his own, less-demanding, non-binding version. The Council rejected the mayor’s proposal and stuck with the alliance.
The coalition also had U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins on their side. The South Buffalo congressman was openly critical of Erie Canal Harbor’s development plans for Canalside and the proposed subsidies for Bass Pro — $35 million in direct payments from the state, and many millions more in land, infrastructure costs, and tax abatements.
That proposed CBA was never ratified, however. Instead, in 2013, the alliance signed a “public statement of principles” with Erie Canal Harbor, guiding future development at Canalside, including provisions regarding wages, hiring and contracting practices, and environmental design standards.
But that document was not a legally binding CBA, according to a post-mortem of the Canalside campaign published by Partnership for the Public Good. And indeed Erie Canal Harbor failed to provide annual progress reports the agreement called for.
However, the Canalside CBA campaign contributed to the dissolution of the BassPro plan. With BassPro out of the picture, the planning for development of the city’s waterfront became a more open process. That engagement led to the creation of the popular public space Canalside has become.
“That whole conversation around the community benefits agreement happened alongside the pushback against Bass Pro, and really sparked a conversation of what kind of waterfront do we want,” Ó Súilleabháin said.
The Canalside CBA campaign also helped introduce the language of so-called “high-road development” into the city planning process.
According to the Partnership for the Public Good assessment, the mayor, despite his initial opposition to the alliance’s CBA proposal, came around to promote its principles. When the city sold a Canalside parcel to Pegula Sports and Entertainment for the HarborCenter project, for example, the Brown administration included a CBA-like provision that HarborCenter pay its employees a living wage.
After the Canalside campaign ended, the same coalition of community groups pushed for a CBA related to continued expansion of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. That effort also failed to produce a legally binding agreement. Once again, however, the Brown administration included CBA-like provisions in the sale of a city-owned parking ramp to the medical campus.
Learning from failure
John Goldstein, the national CBA expert, is familiar with Western New York: He offered advice and support to both the Canalside and the medical campus campaigns.
Goldstein said that Western New Yorkers ought not be discouraged by past failures. He said his database of CBAs around the country provides plenty of examples of what works, both in the agreements themselves and in the campaigns to win them.
It also includes some cautionary tales.
“There’s a big junkyard of troubled development agreements and failures,” he said.
Among the failures are two agreements for heavily subsidized New York City projects — one for the Atlantic Yard development in Brooklyn, the other for the new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. The provisions of those CBAs were never monitored or enforced, because the coalitions that won them evaporated once the campaigns were over.
Some coalitions have been undermined by elected officials working on behalf of developers, Goldstein said, citing campaigns in Pittsburgh and Detroit.
Others have faltered because they failed to understand the project and its financing, the power dynamics supporting or opposing the project, and the points at which decision-making is subject to public pressure.
Still others have failed because they did not provide for an independent body to monitor compliance and extract penalties if the developer doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
One of the architects of a groundbreaking 2001 CBA for the Staples Center in Los Angeles was a community activist and attorney named Madeline Janis, now executive director of Jobs to Move America, which advocates for investment in public transportation projects.
Goldstein described Janis as “sort of the godmother” of the CBA movement.
According to Goldstein, Janis’s first piece of advice for coalitions seeking CBAs is to shoot for the moon.
“She always said the biggest mistake that coalitions make is not asking for enough,” Goldstein said. “They’re afraid. People are afraid. We’re so used to settling for so little.”