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In possible violation of my “No Politics” policy, I’m going to rant a minute or two about my city of Buffalo, which has reached what I perceive to be a crossroads.

An upcoming vote by the Seneca Nation of Indians will decide if casinos are built in the downtown areas of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, NY, as well as a third in some as-yet undetermined location in Western New York outside of those two cities. The idea, of course, is that the new casinos will rejuvenate the moribund downtown sections of these two cities by drawing large numbers of people from the surrounding regions to spend (and lose) money. This will be just the latest in a long line of silver-bullet-style projects at which local politicians have grasped, each time promising that this is the one that will lift Buffalo out of the doldrums (the boom of the 90s completely bypassed Buffalo, a city that is still reeling from the losses of thousands of manufacturing jobs twenty years ago), each time lining up for state aid to get the job done (whilst teachers and school aides — and never administrators — are laid off and fire department precincts are closed), and each time chanting that wonderful mantra, “If we build it, they will come” (note to people who insist on using this cliche: It was a MOVIE, and the line is “If YOU build it, HE will come”, and the “he” refers to the main character’s father, not an unending flock of deep-pocketed tourists who theoretically could find nothing better to do than gamble). Casinos are a bad bet for any number of reasons. Of course there is the fear that gambling addiction will jump in this city, as well as prostitution; but what galls me are the claims that casinos will generate spinoff economic development as restaurants are opened nearby, shops move in, et cetera. Clearly people who say these kinds of things have never been in a real casino, where shops and restaurants and entertainment are all there under the same roof as the gambling machinery. The entire premise behind a casino operation is, “Get them in the door and then keep them here”. The benefit to other local businesses is negligible, if not downright nonexistent.

In the last fifteen years, Buffalo has built new sports venues, each time insisting that they will stimulate downtown business development. The ballpark is lovely and I really am glad they built it, but how a minor-league baseball stadium that is only open at most ninety times a year is supposed to jumpstart local business investment is beyond me. Buffalo has also built a light rail system which did, in fact, seem like a good idea — until they only built it along one street, and they stopped it virtually on the border of Amherst, Buffalo’s richest suburb. There was a big ceremony last year announcing the construction of a big new office building in downtown Buffalo, but that project’s other shoe dropped recently when the company behind that project — Adelphia Cable — suffered a calamitous drop in its stock value. And while cities like Cleveland, Baltimore, and Milwaukee have in the last ten years or so rebuilt their historical waterfront districts into exciting hubs of small business, entertainment, and residential activity, Buffalo’s waterfront development is still mostly on the drawing board. One other weird thing about Buffalo that I have noticed: our tourist literature always seems to point out, as a “selling point”, our proximity to places like Toronto, Montreal, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and NYC. You really have to wonder about a city that sells itself on the basis of how short a drive it is to someplace else.

There are hopeful signs on the horizon for Buffalo. The state has committed large amounts of money to help launch a state-of-the-art Center for Bioinformatics, which should — if the cards are played right, which is by no means a lock — help Buffalo get involved in what many say will be the next boom-sector in the high tech economy. Also, developers are currently renovating a number of buildings in downtown Buffalo into residential buildings, which seems to imply that the powers-that-be are at least starting to recognize that a city’s vitality lies not in how many people come there for a few hours at a time, but in how vibrant a community actually lives there. The County Legislature, usually quite willing to let the City of Buffalo twist in the wind, is actually scrambling to find some money to at least partially restore the city’s arts funding, which was cut off after the latest round of deficits. (Deficits are actually par for the course, but the State of New York is usually good to cover the difference — at least in years when the State Government isn’t preoccupied with other financial demands, such as rebuilding the state’s other large city which was the unfortunate victim of a terrorist attack last September.) Buffalo has an arts community that is larger and more vibrant than one would expect in a city this size. It seems to me that if a “silver bullet” exists, it is far more likely to involve the arts than sports or casinos. One striking statistic that I recently read in Artvoice is that while the HSBC Arena, the home of the Buffalo Sabres of the NHL, is open perhaps 120 nights a year for various events, the Shea’s Buffalo Theatre (the city’s largest theatre, where the largest traveling Broadway productions are mounted) is open over 220 nights a year. And whereas the Arena is ringed by parking lots, Shea’s is surrounded by restaurants and is within walking distance of Chippewa Street, downtown Buffalo’s “party area”. Any politician — indeed, any person at all — who can claim that the arts are a luxury to be dispensed with in times of fiscal hardship is simply unaware of reality.

From my perspective, the next five to ten years will make or break the City of Buffalo. At the end of that time it will either be a bustling community and a destination in its own right, or it will be a mere waystation on the way from Boston to Chicago on I-90.

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