Friday, December 20, 2002

Even though I don't live in Buffalo anymore, I still care deeply about the old hometown. When you hear about all the old, industrial Northeastern cities that fell on hard times in the 1970s and 1980s but then made big comebacks in the 1990s, with revitalized downtowns and commitments to high-tech industries to shore up the eroding tax bases -- cities like Cleveland and Baltimore -- one also notes, lurking in the background, those other poor cities, the ones knocking on the window and crying, "Can I play too?" That's Buffalo, sadly -- a city with miles and miles of undeveloped waterfront land that, for more than a decade, has had local politicians saying "We've got to develop that land!" and then having nothing happen; a city that is grasping not just at casino gambling, but Indian-run casino gambling (which, according to last week's TIME Magazine, in all likelihood will not even benefit the Indians running the thing) as the latest silver-bullet to jump-start a downtown that only needs a few tumbleweeds and an Ennio Morricone soundtrack to finish the current look; a city where financial management is so bad that the City Controller literally could not find some of the city's money; a city whose economy is such dire straits that even in a time of fiscal crisis the city officials found a way to ride to the rescue of, not a local factory or hospital or other big industry, but K-Mart.

So it's not at all surprising to read today that the Buffalo Sabres may be forced to leave town if the city and state can't help get the team sold. And I won't be at all surprised if they find the money, somehow. They found it when the Sabres threatened to leave town unless they got a new arena; they found it when the Bills likewise threatened to leave unless Ralph Wilson Stadium (then Rich Stadium), a county-owned facility, were significantly upgraded; they found it when K-Mart threatened to leave the city. (And we're talking about one store here -- that's all. They kept a single K-Mart open.) They couldn't find it, though, when there wasn't enough to keep all the fire departments and police precincts open. They haven't been able to find enough to keep from having to close schools and repair the ones still open.

Hockey's not my thing, really, but I love sports. I think that professional sports (and collegiate sports, if there is a good program in town) add a great deal to a municipality's lifestyle. I root for the Bills very strongly, and I do root for the Sabres, even though I'm far from passionate about them. I'd hate to see Buffalo lose its franchises, but I'm not sure that spending the money to keep them -- when there are bigger, more important problems to be solved -- is a good idea. When we're saying "Gee, we just can't give the schools and the arts the funding they want, but we'll see what we can come up with for the hockey team", I think the priorities are a bit, maybe just a little, a tiny bit, f*cked up. And I'm not at all convinced that sports bring in huge amounts of revenue, nor am I convinced that they spawn business development. I've driven through too many areas -- in Buffalo and in other cities -- where these arenas, stadiums and ballparks exist, surrounded by nothing but parking lots, empty buildings and nothing else.

A recurrent topic in Buffalo is the city's "brain-drain": the fact that the bright, young people almost inevitably leave once they become adults because good jobs are very scarce there. In effect, the city's young -- its children -- are saying, "We may be forced to leave town if you can't come up with the jobs that we want." Faced with that choice on the one hand by its children, and on the other by its hockey team, Buffalo keeps choosing to keep the hockey team.

Is this any way to run a city?

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