There are so many smart people among us. If you have a question there’s an answer one or two connections away. Someone knows someone and is very happy to introduce you. Asking the right questions then becomes the issue. After four weeks of feedback to this column it might be helpful to revisit the focus and questions we’re after. We are here to answer a not-so-simple question: Why is the city of Niagara Falls what it is, and can we make it better in our lifetime? It’s a civics question. There ARE reasons — human actions — behind every situation the city finds itself in. Can we dispassionately identify and unpack the correlary questions, discern reasonable expectations, come up with a set of goals, make a to-do list of priorities and set about achieving them?
We also need to quiz ourselves about expectations. What are the expectations for the city? Do we expect a modest stabilization of population and to get off the most-dangerous city list? Or do we expect a gleaming city of hundreds of thousands of residents, fully employed, with free electricity? I’m meeting three new people per week for tea and intense, table-pounding discussions — but most conversations are off the record. And trust me, they need to be! But we need a few more Anello’s and Stevenson’s to put their life experiences in print. To take ownership. Civics and city-building is not sexy stuff on a daily basis. But the end results are life altering. I will reach out to people that want to be involved, gather opinions, log responses and chase leads. You can continue to impart the important details in what is appearing to be a giant game of Clue. At the end of this exercise we’ll pinpoint some real life variation of Mr. Mustard in the conservatory with the candle stick. Trust me, there will be a conclusion as definitive as that. And the fun part is that it will entail names you know, places you’ve lived and a weapon. Being defensive won’t help. No matter your view of the city, it is part of our American DNA to pursue self-improvement. Whatever we are, we can be better. With the assets of Niagara Falls, being slightly better should be the understatement of the decade. A dispassionate assessment of our assets should indicate this city has phenomenal potential. Those are the “can’t” edicts. Now, what can we do? I’ve thought about this a very long time, talked with many people and narrowed the topics of focus to these:
• City Budget — where you raise and spend money says everything about priorities. We need to identify one budget year, and get deep into the details. We’ve got a $90 million checkbook. We need to know what the priorities have been. Money is not the problem. It is the allocation of it that we need to understand.
• Master Plan — Vince Anello pointed out that there has been a written master plan in one version or another for Niagara Falls for fifty years. But that plan has never become a governing document. It’s time we get on the same page.
• Property Ownership and Condition — We have some of the most valuable land in the entire world. A lot of it is unused. Much of the rest doesn’t instill pride. There are few exceptions, one being what Carl Paladino did with the old United Office Building. It’s respectful, functional and revenue producing. If you landed here from another planet you’d look at the city, identify that building, and give the rest of the city to that person and tell him to do more of the same. Who owns all these properties and why are they vacant or under utilized. And I quite literally mean why. Developers are a different breed of cat, let’s not kid ourselves, but they’re not evil, and they don’t leave properties vacant because they forgot about them. They have plans and know what it will take to generate revenue. We need their advice and counsel.
• Asset Evaluation — The city does not have any control over one of the largest power plants in the country, one of the largest airport runways on the eastern seaboard, nor control over one of the most visited parks in the country. What’s it left with? We need an asset evaluation report.
• Government structure and responsibility — during this mayoral campaign the city tax structure was debated. We learned that no mayor can make that change without state approval. What? So what powers do our local city officials have? We need to come up with a version of a who-does-what document. Didn’t Mayor Elia do that? Let’s dust it off and update it.
• Foreign Affairs — this is perhaps the most overlooked component. The city not only shares a border with Canada, but shares a border with the Seneca Nation, since they possess 50 acres of downtown real estate. Furthermore, NYS can seem like a foreign entity at times, and the city borders the park, airport and power plant. Those are some powerful allies and we need an understanding of their priorities. I don’t think I’ve read a story about the Seneca Nation that doesn’t start with “you owe us money.” That seems like an immature and narrow way to talk to a foreign power. The civics takeaway: everyone is part of the solution, and has expectations which need to be considered, We have valuable allies and assets few others have. Done right, transparently and proactively, it benefits everyone everywhere to have a vibrant Niagara Falls. All of us are smarter than any of us.
The Civics Project is an organization founded to further the education of the public to their civic responsibilities. For further information or to become involved visit www.thecivicsproject.org. Mr. Christy can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.