Politics

Rustbelt Dilemma

Nobody knows more about Buffalo than Byron Brown, its new mayor. One thing he knows is that revival won't come easily.
by | December 2005

Byron Brown has spent his entire adult life getting ready to serve as mayor of Buffalo. But when he takes office next month, he will find himself frustratingly dependent on forces outside his control.

Most of those forces are economic and demographic. Once among the nation's 10 largest cities, Buffalo has lost half its population since 1950 and, says Dan Locche of the local Realtors association, "to say there's been an outflux of jobs is putting it mildly." The combination of increased demand on services and a declining ability to pay for them left the city such a basket case that in 2003 New York State imposed a financial control board (as it also did in surrounding Erie County.)

Into this mess steps Brown, 46, elected in November as the city's first African-American mayor. He's certainly well prepared. Brown got his start in politics in the 1980s as an aide to top legislators at the city, county and state levels. A decade ago, he won election to the Buffalo common council, and he has spent the past five years representing the city in the state Senate.

As a junior member of the minority party, Brown didn't compile a long list of Senate successes, although he helped land some projects for his city. But he earned a reputation, helpful in his mayoral campaign, as someone who was affable and always willing to seek consensus.

Some worry that his seeming lack of aggressiveness will keep him from pursuing structural reforms necessary in hard times. That task may be made even harder by the fact that Brown's biggest financial backers in the campaign were public employee unions, which have resisted previous efforts to clear the deadwood out of City Hall, a 32-story warren of overlapping and often antiquated departments.

Whether he wants to or not, Brown will have to make some budget cuts in order to please the control board, which has already demanded wage and hiring freezes. "In some ways, the hard choices will be made by somebody other than the mayor," says Canisius College political scientist Michael Haselswerdt. "His options are going to be limited to none, and he'll just be administering."

Brown will have a little more leeway when it comes to promoting economic development, especially along the city's waterfront, where projects that have been delayed for decades seem finally to be gathering some momentum. HealthNow New York, a major insurance company, has won approval for an $86 million downtown headquarters building, cleaning up a brownfield site and keeping 1,300 jobs in Buffalo. A massive project to turn the old Sabres hockey arena into a museum, fishing outpost and shopping center may move forward as well. "There's a problem with inertia in Buffalo," says an aide to a local congressman, "but Byron Brown has been helpful about calling for getting shovels on the ground."

Since Buffalo has been down so long, the smallest migration of people heading back downtown to live or work will provide an enormous boost. If Brown can't pull off the megadevelopments but still gives a push to some smaller scale projects, says Realtor Locche, "it would give people a ray of hope."

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