Cities: April 2004 Archives

Buffalo roaming


I had this notion that I'd have plenty of time for blogging during my recent business trip, without the responsibilities of home for a week or so. Instead, I've worked some 10- to 12-hour days, and the last thing I felt like doing once I got back to the hotel room was thinking and typing. Often, being back at the hotel room just meant a chance to use the high-speed Internet connection to get more work done. Some lengthy e-mail replies to friends were started but never finished.

So there are all these random thoughts in my head -- about baseball, nightlife, Fisher-Price, foliage -- we'll see how many I can get typed on the flight back home.

A week ago Friday night I attended the Buffalo Bisons' season opener at Dunn Tire Park in downtown Buffalo. It was a beautiful evening, and I managed to walk up at game time and get a ticket on the front row near third base -- apparently a lone seat in between two blocks of season tickets. The park is about 15 years old, designed by HOK in a way that fits its downtown surroundings. It seats about 20,000, biggest park in the minor leagues. When the park first opened, the Bisons had a string of six straight years drawing over a million fans a year. Opening night drew over 17,000 and badly overloaded the concession stands -- some of my neighbors would go for food or beer and disappear for three innings. Somehow, as I came in, I found the only concession stand with a short line. Got a beef-on-weck sandwich (along with horseradish packets, of course) and a big Diet Coke and I was set for the game.

Some Buffalo-area political notes:

New York takes a different approach to local school funding. A school board approves a budget, and calculations are done to figure out the property tax adjustment needed to bring in the required amount of money. Citizens vote on the budget in mid-May. If the budget is rejected, the board can make a second proposal. If that one fails, the board "would be forced to adopt a contingency budget." Thursday's Buffalo News had a story on suburban Orchard Park, where the school board president announced he would campaign against the 9% budget increase which was adopted by a 4-3 vote, because of the impact on taxpayers with fixed incomes. The board president had proposed a 6% increase. Here's the element of this story that will be familiar to Tulsans: board members on the winning side of the vote insist that the board president should support the adopted budget:

"I'm not going to comment on other board members, but they know how they should act, " said Joseph F. Bieron.

Jacqueline J. Paone, executive director of the Erie County Association of School Boards, said the law does not prevent a board member from campaigning against a budget, though such a situation is rare.

"When a school board makes a decision, regardless of what the vote is, the intent is the entire board would then support that decision," she said. "Does that happen all the time? No. But that's the advice we always give."

If a board member thinks a budget is bad enough to vote against, it only makes sense for him to try to make the same case to the electorate. Some people want to treat a school board or a city council as if it were like a president's cabinet, where members serve largely at the president's pleasure and together represent the president to the public. You would expect a cabinet to discuss policy options behind the scenes then unite behind whatever course of action the president chooses.

But a school board or a city council is a legislative body, and its members are individually responsible to the constituents who elected them. Insisiting on institutional solidarity will usually result in the betrayal of the interests of the voters.

Indian casinos are much in the news here. The Seneca Nation, which developed a casino in the old convention center in Niagara Falls, NY, plans to build one east of the airport in Cheektowaga. (And you thought Oklahoma was the only state with interesting Indian place names. Up here, they've also got Gowanda, Tonawandas -- North and plain, Lackawanna -- maybe they can borrow one from Tonawandas.) Buffalo pols are frustrated because they thought they helped push through the state gaming compact which authorized a casino in the Buffalo area. City officials thought they had a promise that the casino would be in the city limits, preferably in downtown. The Senecas point out that the compact wasn't that specific, and that they couldn't find a place in the City of Buffalo to meet their requirements. City officials are threatening lawsuits. A better approach might be to trademark the city's name so that the Seneca Nation can't use it in the name of the casino. If they want to call it "Seneca Buffalo" casino, they'd have to put it in Buffalo. Otherwise they'll have to hope people can remember where Cheektowaga is.

Reports are that the casino has done nothing for hotel occupancies in Niagara Falls, NY. Ontario has a competing casino across the river with slightly lower minimums, along with a better view of the falls and a range of tourist attractions from natural beauty to businesses that would be equally at home on Highway 76 in Branson. The Ontario casino is sandwiched between Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not, Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, a Hershey Store, a Coca-Cola Store, and is just a few steps away from the gorge's edge. The New York casino is in a dead part of downtown Niagara Falls, surrounded by surface parking lots, apparently the result of earlier urban renewal efforts.

The cheapest blackjack table is CAN $15 in Ontario; US $15 at the Senecas' casino. That's a lot of money to bet on the turn of a single card, and it reflects the difference between a state-enforced gambling monopoly and the free market that exists in Nevada. In Nevada, you can sit down at a $2 minimum table with a $50 bankroll -- what you might otherwise spend on an evening's entertainment -- and play for a long time. That makes it easier for people to play without going over a prudent limit. In New York, you can lose it all in four hands -- if you're going to play for an hour or so you'll need to be prepared to lose a lot more. I suspect that the high minimum casinos attract more local compulsive gamblers and not the casual players from out of state that you would find in Vegas or Mississippi -- the kind that actually bring money into the state. If Oklahoma's going to open the door to gambling, we ought to allow free competition (with appropriate regulation), not a state-sponsored monopoly.

I've spent a lot of time in Hampton Inns over the last year -- one in the historic district of Savannah, Georgia, one a block away from Main Street in East Aurora, New York, and one next to an Autoroute in the industrial and office park wasteland north of Montreal's Dorval Airport. Driving around downtown Buffalo, I noticed a new Hampton Inn at the corner of Delaware and Chippewa, in the heart of a lively entertainment district. These hotels were all built in the last few years.

What is striking about the Hampton Inns built in urban areas is how well adapted they are to their surroundings. The technical term for this is "sensitive infill". I wonder whether this is a strategic choice by the hotel owners or by the chain, and to what degree local zoning regulations mandated design choices.

A two-newspaper town


I'm still up here in East Aurora, New York, east of Buffalo, where the daffodils are just starting to bloom.

I just spent a pleasant hour at Tony Rome's Globe Hotel, which is not a hotel at all, but a restaurant in what was an inn for a century or so. Over a prime rib dinner and a Guinness (which really is good for you), I perused the two weekly newspapers which compete for the patronage of the 6,000 or so residents of East Aurora, and the 30,000 more who live in the surrounding townships, a semi-rural area on the eastern edge of Erie County.

The East Aurora Advertiser is an independent broadsheet paper, in operation since 1872. Its publisher channels the ghost of Millard Fillmore at the 13th president's annual birthday bash here.

The East Aurora Bee is part of a chain of tabloid weeklies circling Buffalo.

Both papers devote a lot of space to detailed coverage of various town, village, and school board meetings in the area, along with local columnists and civic events. Can you imagine it? Two different detailed accounts of the village council meeting. You might actually gain some perspective.

Zoning and budgets seem to get a lot of attention here. East Aurora's village council passed a budget that won't require raising property taxes for the coming year. The board almost deferred the vote, because there was a question about whether the work session qualified as a public meeting under the state's Open Meetings Law. According to the story, the Advertiser's publisher has "criticized local officials for improperly condeucting business behind closed doors." (Imagine, a newspaper publisher who wants public officals to have their debates in public!)

The village board is also considering a moratorium on the development of gas stations and automotive businesses. This was prompted by a convenience store company buying a commercially-zoned house two lots behind an existing Main Street location, deeper into the neighborhood. The broader concern is about homes which are zoned commercial and could be converted to any commercial use, no matter what the context is. They may convert these homes to "residential-commercial" zoning which would allow small offices, but not gas stations. There's also talk of a moratorium on auto-related businesses and drive-throughs on Main Street. The village board's attitude is interesting, because they seem to place preserving the character of Main Street and the neighborhood above the value of new development, and they don't seem to be concerned about being sued for changing the zoning after the property has been bought by a commercial interest.

The Bee covered most of the same stories, complimenting the accounts in the Advertiser. The Bee does not have much content online, but they do have a very long page of police blotter entries, taken from all of the chain's papers, with links to the best of the blotter for each of the past eight years. The blotter page in the paper itself runs with the following disclaimer:

The Bee's police blotter is a sampling of unusual, sometimes humorous calls received by the police department. It is not intended to be a complete record of all incidents reported.

Some recent entries in the blotter:

Authorities were called to settle a dispute in which the daughter of an East Aurora woman alleged her mother read her diary.

Three pudding containers were thrown at a residence on Osgood Avenue, damaging a shutter.

Read on for more....

I noticed yesterday morning that the rental car didn't have an ice scraper and snow brush. The reason I noticed yesterday morning is because there was a half-inch of wet snow on the car.

Spring rerun


Traveling north from Tulsa in April is like hitting rewind on the Earth's orbit and going back a month and a half. Once again today, I found myself leaving Green Country at its most glorious to experience the tentative beginnings of spring in western New York State.

When I arrived a week ago, there were still icicles dangling from north-facing eaves, patches of snow covering deep green grass, and, at the edges of parking lots, four-foot high piles of grey ice, reminders of knee-deep snow falls from two months ago. Snow had fallen Palm Sunday weekend, and we got a few flurries early Good Friday morning. But Maundy Thursday afternoon was sunny, and I enjoyed a free hour to wander the streets of East Aurora. The trees were still bare, but crocus could be seen in every lawn.

Heading from the airport to the hotel, as I turned onto Transit Road this afternoon, I could see that spring had truly arrived: Salvatore's Italian Gardens had removed the classic cars on display from their winter cocoons of plastic shrinkwrap. The cold rain over the weekend had been warm enough to dissolve the last of the slush piles. A few buds can be seen in the trees. Spring is here, again.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Cities category from April 2004.

Cities: November 2003 is the previous archive.

Cities: May 2004 is the next archive.

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