The Innovation Center

May 21, 2009

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I got a chance to tour the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus Innovation Center – part of the former Trico complex – to see how progress is being made on turning the building into business and lab space for the fledgling Life Sciences industry in Western New York.

It looks, um, nice.  Inside it will be clean, bright and modern.  I only wish they would have gone for the “Thomas Edison” open laboratory look, but with various tenants doing super-secret bio-science stuff, walls are needed.  It is unclear what the exterior will eventually look like.  The only things apparent were the replacement windows and a bowed-out atrium.

The Innovation Center is a 100,000 square foot, 4-story add-on adjacent to the monstrous half-million square foot, 6-story Trico building that was essentially abandoned by the late Stephen McGarvey when he took ill, but not before he had the roof taken off.  Years of rainwater distributed Trico toxins throughout the building and the cost to clean up the mess means that the Innovation Center may be the only portion of the complex that is ever renovated.  So we’ll have a small, nice-looking building full of state-of-the-art laboratories servicing brilliant medical minds next door to a dilapidated poisoned edifice that is in such bad shape they’ve had to cordon off the sidewalk around it for fear of falling bricks.

Urban renewal comes slowly, in very small increments, to Buffalo.


Elephant Spokesmen

May 13, 2009

Elephant and Donkey

The most vocal talking heads of the Grand Old Party are Dick Cheney, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh????

That can’t be a very good way to grow the Republican base to a size that can take on the Democrats, and could be disastrous for the Republicans for many elections to come.  A silent Colin Powell and an Eric Cantor who seems afraid to use the word “Republican” might be more statesmanlike choices around which to circle the wagons, but they are either unwilling or unable to take those leadership reins away from the attack dogs.

Maybe Cheney, Limbaugh and Beck are actually liberal-leaning strategists who realize that an adversarial right-wing Republican line that eschews moderates will only expand the Democratic Party’s grip on government.  Maybe that’s the strategy.  It’s certainly one that I can at least rationalize; because when you’re the minority, ostracizing your own and potential party members does not seem to be a reasonable approach to winning more friends.

We are now living the results of almost 8 years of single party dominance.  It stands to reason that 8 more years of a single dominant party will not lead to the rational compromises required to strike the balance that defines good governance.  A single dominant party is also likely to hand even more power to the unelected party bosses; witness, with rare exception, Erie County and the city of Buffalo’s election choices.

Yesterday I participated in a webinar sponsored by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, in which Trent Lott was the guest speaker.  The webinar was supposed to be on the effects of the new stimulus package but it only superficially covered that topic, wandered into several others and generally did not stray very much out of the wading pool.  Former Senator Lott mentioned the Republican Party’s poor election showing and stated that the Party needed to have a clear voice on the issues of interest to the American people.

So I got to ask Trent Lott a very simple question:  What, in his opinion, is the clear voice that the Republican Party needs to vocalize?  He sidestepped the question entirely, choosing to answer with “The GOP needs to think about the words they choose”.

When virtually every American is decrying the economy, jobs and health care (note:  abortion and immigration aren”t even on the radar), it is clear that the Republican Party needs to put together a platform and a single voice that elevates those very issues, and needs to do so in a manner that is critical but constructive rather than adversarial to those in control.


Gross Incompetence Can Be Tolerated for Only So Long

May 6, 2009

failing-grades

There’s a fight going on in the Holland Central School district.  It’s the same fight being waged in many schools in Erie County: Too many teachers.

The teachers’ union (with the support of some parents) is resisting attempts by the Holland school board – with the support of other parents – to increase student-teacher ratios, especially in those grades with declining enrollment.  How much decline is there?  Well, the K-12 population of the school is currently 1,258 (last year’s graduating class:  99).  Next year’s kindergarten enrollment is currently estimated to be…less than 50.  Yet there are 6 kindergarten teachers.  Do the math and it is clear that in at least one grade there are probably too many teachers.

In Holland, this is a big issue.  It’s not even a blip on the Buffalo Public Schools radar.  In a bloated administrative system with an entrenched, uncooperative teachers union, a sense of victimization, isolation and systemic underachievement at all levels, the prospects for even incremental improvement to Buffalo’s public education seem remote.  Certainly, the examples set by union/administration feuding do not lend themselves to motivating students; and really, in the long run motivation is what it’s all about:  Motivated students will learn under any circumstances.

Holland is one of the most rural towns in Erie County and will spend $13,000 per student and graduate nearly all of them.  Buffalo on the other hand, spends upwards of $24,000 per student and will graduate less than half.  Holland’s board and the teachers will eventually reach some compromise.  Phil Rumore and James Williams will not.

What a tragedy for this area.  Most small businesses cannot offer jobs to those with such limited skills and worse, with little or no motivation.  The same local businesses starve for prospects because there are not enough skilled workers to go around.  And big businesses looking to possibly expand into the region?  Well, an educational system ranked at the bottom of the state drives one more nail into that coffin.

Our community’s future is being pissed away by a collectively incompetent group of professionals (and I use that word sarcastically) who appear intent on cutting the throats of the community around them.  It has taken us 50 years to get here, and we are guaranteeing at least 20 more years of another uneducated lost generation.

I get tired of watching so much money being thrown down a sewer; and greatly saddened that my analogy seems so appropriate.


Not Riding the Bus

May 2, 2009

empty-bus

A couple weeks ago my wife and I were returning from an evening party at the Buffalo Convention Center to our car, parked in the Convention Parking Ramp one block away.  During that very brief walk we watched four NFTA buses go by.  There were two passengers, total.

Running a regional bus service like this does not appear to be very cost effective.  But with all the available surface parking in Buffalo, maybe there’s no other way.

I wonder if the decentralization of the bus system – doing away with the hub-and-spoke model that forces every bus to the central bus terminal, and replacing it with smaller, more localized shuttles – would make more sense.  It’s hard to believe that 50-person buses only filled to 2% capacity could ever be profitable.


Back to the Future with High-Speed Rail

March 11, 2009

high-speed-rail

If I hear one more article about the promise of high-speed rail in New York I think I’m going to gag.

Does anyone remember the promise of the Buffalo subway system?  That service to nowhere cost the government somewhere around $500M back in the early ’80s.  Ridership never came close to justifying the cost.  You think high-speed rail across the upstate region is going to suddenly make Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica and Albany chic destination spots? Amtrak with all its millions in government help couldn’t do it, not while it shares the same rails with slow-moving freight trains and dilapidated stations.

And until you solve the problem of obtaining easy last-mile travel once you step off the train, city-to-city high-speed rail will remain unattractive.   So far, that last-mile discussion hasn’t even begun.

While construction of a rail line may have some short-term (very short-term) benefits to a few laborers scattered across upstate New York, rail’s life cycle costs are enormous.  We have spent the past 30 years proving that such rail service can’t exist without subsidies; why would we want to subject ourselves and our children to that kind of future penalty?

Let’s get real.


Carl Paladino, Speaker and Writer

March 2, 2009

carl-paladino

Love him or hate him, Carl Paladino is one colorful character.  He was the guest of honor and Executive of the Year at the Buffalo Niagara Sales and Marketing Executives (BNSME) gala on Monday night.  Carl pulled no punches.

Paladino is calling for revolution.  I don’t think I have the backbone to follow him, or maybe it’s just that I don’t think it will do any good – Buffalo and Albany are just too corrupt to be influenced by whiny voters.  It would take balls – lots of them – to foment any real change.  Or maybe I’m just to busy trying to survive, and can’t find the time to take on New York State government.

Quick story:  The Albany Legislative complex is built like a fortress.  It is massive, surrounded by high walls and not pedestrian friendly.  100,000 protesters could show up (they’d have to walk – not enough nearby parking), break into the main entrance…and they would barely be noticed in the cavernous underground mall.  Dispersed throughout the complex they would not raise the people density enough to be taken seriously.  I’m sure the Capitol was built this way, for that reason.

Anyway, Palidino lit into every politician, by name, that has eaten from the public trough for all these years.  He blasted, just blasted, the Buffalo News and Margaret Sullivan’s leadership of it.  He vilified James Williams, Phil Rumore, the Buffalo Board of Education and the 800 million dollar school system they are supposed to be running.  He spat venom at labor unions, Buffalo city government and especially Albany.

How angry was he?

Prior to his speech – and in order to set the tone of what was to come – a letter that he wrote to Margaret Sullivan of the Buffalo News back in January was distributed to the dinner guests.  It starts like this:

Here’s my two cents on the News.  It’s a monopolistic predator imposing its liberal views and superficial journalism on a community seeking to pull itself out of fifty years of decline as a result of impotent public and private sector leadership.  As the only show in town during most of that time, it became lame and lazy serving up assenine [sic] slop without any guilt for failing to mobilize the community with objective, call to arms journalism.  You’ve been in a box so long that you have no idea how to get out of it.  Your subscriptions are falling and you are frustrated.  You have no follow through and you wonder why you can’t hit the ball.

There’s lots more (after the jump)

Read the rest of this entry »


Snow in the South

March 1, 2009

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I’m always impressed with the inability of our Southern friends to handle even a dusting of snow; I can understand why – when they can’t even navigate their own driveways -  that they might eschew anything north of the Mason-Dixon line.  This weekend’s major storm is guaranteed to bring much of the East coast to a standstill, even though in most places you’re talking about, maybe, one to four inches tops anywhere south of Philadelphia.

We all know up here that once Lake Erie freezes over there is (usually) little additional accumulation the rest of the winter, and March 1, 2009 is no exception: My lawn is exposed and the few area snow drifts are dirty from lack of fresh snow cover.  It’s sort of nice for once to be in sunshine here while watching 25-mile backups in Tennessee.

I hope they survive to mock Buffalo another day.


Missing the Boat

February 16, 2009
Commercial Plug for EG Tax
Commercial Plug for EGTax

“I’m Esther Gulyas the Tax Lady.  I understand people are doing some pretty unusual things to save money this year.”

EG Tax’s television commercial “Frugal Me” follows that quote with Benny Hillish sketches of

  • A family decked out in winter regalia warming themselves by the fireplace (a fake one at that)
  • A goofy guy riding to work on a bicycle
  • A voice demanding that all the lights be turned off

No offense to Esther Gulyas’ wacky commercials; I hope the business they attract pays for them 10 times over.  But the pretty unusual things are essentially

  • Lowering the heat
  • Using alternative transportation
  • Conserving electricity

The commercial could have emphasized that doing these things and going to the Tax Lady would save oodles of money rather than playing one against the other, particularly in light of how silly energy conservation is made to look.

We need to collectively learn to conserve.  This could have been a great business ad and public service announcement rolled into one.  EG Tax should consider that next time.


Irrational Fears

February 13, 2009

Pizza

I was going to write a snarky post about that hotel that burned to the ground in Beijing because of errant fireworks, but then the plane crash in Clarence Center happened, which put things into a different perspective.

The perspective is this:  From the crash to the time that it took for delivery of the flight data recorders to Washington, more people died on U.S. highways than died on the plane.

We have this obsession with calamity and great fear of mass death, and we will force changes to the system to reduce that chance of death to almost zero; yet we will still use our cell phones while we drive, and we will drive under the influence, we will drive in bad weather, recklessly, and over the speed limit.

Want another example?  We have spent billions and billions fighting the war on terror to make sure that those terrorists don’t get us, but we won’t change our diets to prevent a much more likely fate:  heart disease, the number one killer in the U.S.

We have irrational fears.  We force the government to spend money in places that do nothing to prolong our lives and ignore the villians most dangerous to us.

And the media plays right along, because calamity sells.

The next time you think about that plane crash, think about your driving habits and that double-cheese pizza you just ate.


Newspapers

February 5, 2009

fish-in-newspaper

As much as I enjoy reading the newspaper and hoping that print media doesn’t go the way of the dinosaur, yesterday’s notice that the Buffalo News is raising its weekday price from 50 to 75 cents is yet another nail in its coffin, probably one of the last nails at that.

No one under the age of 30 reads the newspaper.  Well, not really, but it was down to 33% in 2007, down from 40% in 2002 and way down from a generation ago.  Pick any age group and the trend is the same:  Print readership continues to decrease.

Newspapers have become vanilla shadows of their past.  And now they are becoming expensive enough for even me, a newspaper junkie, to question their value.  How does one justify the cost when the online version is free?

The joke “What’s black and white and read all over?” will soon be lost to the ages.


Innovate Buffalo Niagara

January 28, 2009

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The Innovate Buffalo Niagara awards luncheon was held today at the Buffalo Convention Center.  The Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s now-yearly event highlighted 66 companies in 5 categories, from Advanced Manufacturing to Professional Services.  The winners got a nice plaque and a chance to bask in the limelight for about 10 seconds.

The place was full of optimism in spite of the current economic climate.  In a period where many businesses are shrinking, companies like Geico, Multisorb and Roswell Park Cancer Institute are adding to staff.  Granted these are companies whose business products are in most cases far removed from the heavy industries that made Buffalo great in the 50′s and a failure 20 years later, but that’s the point here:  This area will survive this economic downturn and grow far more quickly by having a diverse business environment than by relying on a few big players.  The 66 companies in the competition represent just how far, how quickly, we’ve come in terms of economic diversity.

We need more of these businesses.  Keep them coming, please.


Downtown Buffalo, 2 PM

January 28, 2009

I didn’t have my camera with me but if I did I would have photographic evidence that the city’s new plan for plowing city streets during inclement weather does not include city streets.

It was clear that none of the east-west side streets downtown had been plowed at all and that the north-south thoroughfares maybe got plowed once.  It was a mess.

And today’s snow has been persistent, but not heavy.

At what point will we no longer accept failure as the only option from our local governments?


Winter Road Construction

January 18, 2009

wehrle-at-transit

Anyone tired yet of the never-ending reconstruction of Wehrle Drive at Transit (and Transit at Wehrle Drive)?  I feel like I’m reliving the nightmare at Genesee Street all over again.

I snapped this shot of the intersection; there are currently 21 traffic signals strung across 6 lanes.  It’s cluttered and confusing and doesn’t appear close to ending any time soon.


Canals

January 13, 2009

canals

Western New York has the Erie Canal, and Love Canal.  It has Canal Side, too.

Why not the Grand Island canals?

My colleague Tom suggested this at work today.  Imagine the canals of Venice.  Okay, that’s a little much.  Imagine a bunch of inlets off the the Niagara River reaching into the Island, like water fingers.  Build homes along the canal where half the garage opens to the street and the other half opens to the water and is, essentially, a boat house.  Connect the canals, provide some good zoning for homes and small business, and you have a unique community focused along the extended waterfront.

I wonder of if the Grand Island Planning Board ever considered something like this.


Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men

December 26, 2008

traffic-stopOn Christmas Eve my friend the Foreign National got ticketed for rolling through a right-on-red.

He did not have his passport with him.

The cop immediately called the local Homeland Security office, who took him into custody and after a few hours decided he was not in the U.S. legally.  He thought that if they allowed him to get his visa, at his apartment, it would prove that the U.S. is his legal home.

It didn’t.  Homeland Security said they had never seen a visa like his, so they took him back to the holding center and held him for a few more hours before finally agreeing that it had all been a mistake and he was free to go.

Only they had his car towed in the interim.  All this on Christmas Eve.

So now my friend is $190 poorer with little recourse but to put up with the harassment of a U.S. agency beholden to no voter, an agency that if he attempted to sue, could (and might) retaliate against him.  An agency that puts guilt before innocence and whose paranoia makes those it touches paranoid.

Sometimes I hate what we’ve become.


R.I.P. Donald Hess

November 14, 2008

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Don Hess, the Hauptman-Woodward Institute’s board chairman, entrepreneur extraordinaire and friend, died last night in a private plane crash in Florida.

What a tragic loss for Buffalo.  Don was a techno-geek like me, someone who successfully co-founded one of Buffalo’s better-known companies.  Amherst Systems is now a division of Northrup-Grumman, but before its eventual purchase was grown from a couple of employees to one of the largest engineering firms in the area.

I don’t think Don ever forgot his roots.  Whenever we met we would discuss science, or engineering, or business, or any other matter of curiosities.  He was always willing to provide advice to me and, I’m sure, other local start-ups.  He was easy to talk to:  We had the same comfort zones.

He will be missed.


Jack Davis, UB Philanthropist

November 14, 2008

jack-davis

I write not to bury Davis, but to praise him.

Jack Davis was officially recognized for his $1.5 million donation to the University at Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences this morning.  President John Simpson and Dean Harvey Stenger introduced Jack to the crowd, praised and thanked him, then turned the podium over to him.  Jack was genteel and gracious, and praised the university in return.

Then he put on his politician’s hat and gave us a lesson in trade imbalances and how that issue became square one of the current economic recession.  He also pleaded with us to jump on his bandwagon.

I think most of those in attendance were academics so this may have been the wrong crowd to preach policy to.  However, I’m glad to have gotten the opportunity to hear his impassioned speech, one that I’m sure he gave many times leading up to his defeat in the 26th district Democratic primary.  It didn’t quite seem appropriate but the crowd was politely receptive.  Frankly, if I were giving UB $1.5 million I’d expect them to applaud even if all I did was wear a rubber suit and walk backward.

He was not a jerk.  He was very cordial and polite.  I’d love to meet some of his employees and ask them how he is as a boss, to learn what Jack Davis is really like when he’s not out politicking.

Philanthropists labeled as irascible are still philanthropists.  Jack could easily turn his back on Western New York; yet he does not.  Kudos to him.


Asbury Hall

November 11, 2008

babeville

There are not many venues in the Buffalo area comparable to Asbury Hall, the Ani DiFranco renovation of the Asbury Methodist Church on Delaware Avenue.  Acoustically clean and large enough to hold a real audience, The Church still allows music to carry up to the heavens even though its religious significance has passed.

Last weekend’s Transformations After Hours – Buffalo Business Takes Center Stage event (they need a shorter title) was not one of those moments where the acoustics could be appreciated.  The social atmosphere meant crowd noise but nonetheless the entertainment value was extraordinary, and the cause very worthwhile.

Upstate New York Transplant Services sponsors this variety show.  They canvass the local environs for business people with musical talent and showcase them on stage.  The result is a great rainbow of music genres and an even greater appreciation for the ability of these people, whom we normally get to know only as bankers, accountants, and car salesmen.

If Bill Blanford ever got sick of his management position at M&T Bank he could eke out a living playing for Fools Like Us, whose cover of Bob Dylan’s My Back Pages I’m still humming two days later.  And anyone who appreciates bass guitar and clean vocal harmonies had to notice the band’s bass player; who was he?

The traffic lights on Delaware Avenue still suck, but the venue was very nice and the evening extremely entertaining.

This is an event to note in your calendar for next year.


Halloween

October 31, 2008

The weather was warm and calm.  On this hallowed evening we had 120 various-sized trick-or-treaters show up.

That was a relatively low number.  I wonder if we counted wrong.


The Dismantling of St. Gerard Church

October 22, 2008

I have not heard much flak about last Saturday’s Buffalo News article regarding the possibility of moving St. Gerard church to Norcross, Georgia, brick by brick (then again, I was out of town all weekend).  Tim Tielman, of course, is against the removal of this historic building.  To Tim, every building built during Buffalo’s glory days is historic.  His solution to the vacant Catholic churches, many in desperate need of repair:  “Work a bit harder [about how to reuse them]“.

I’ve done a 180 in my opinion of Tielman and his Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, whom I originally respected as someone looking out for Buffalo’s heritage.  Now I just think he’s an obstructionist.  And reactionary, someone living entirely in the past.  And full of screeds but no real solutions.  An attention addict.

The Catholic Church, I would hope, is about the people and not the places.  Telling the Church to think harder about how to save empty buildings in a locale that has lost half its population is tantamount to telling them to spend money and resources where they least benefit the community they have dedicated their lives to serve.  Dereliction results to half the buildings in an area that needs half its building space.  We only have so many Ani DiFrancos and an incredible number of vacant churches – and other historic but decrepit buildings – and hardly any money anywhere to save even a fraction.  Tielman needs to get real.

The Catholic diocese may have a unique (and rare!) opportunity to see one of its buildings take on a new life, and I for one would love to see a piece of historic Buffalo in the Atlanta area.  The London Bridge is still the London Bridge, even if it spans an artificial water channel in Arizona.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to travel throughout the country and find Buffalo heritage everywhere?


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