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Commentary: Helping the Area's Small Businesses

By Joseph Foegen

Buffalo, NY – The Taste of Buffalo is an annual celebration of food that occurs on Main Street. Generally, I do not attend such festivities, but this year I did. While the scores of people around me were enjoying the mouth watering fare being produced by the fine restaurants of the city and surrounding suburbs. I could not eat, because I couldn't stomach what I saw. The venue for this event was littered with vacant and dilapidated buildings. I counted at least half a dozen with a "For Lease" sign tattooed on their fa ade. To me this is irony at its best, Main Street a place for mass celebration and enjoyment, too bad it was only for a weekend.

While walking through the masses, I took photos of the vacant buildings and had the opportunity to speak with Senator Charles Schumer, who was politicking his way through Saturday's crowd. When I approached Mr. Schumer, I asked him what is being done to help this impoverished area. He responded the Federal government something or other, but seeing the look on my face mentioned how "happening" W. Chippewa is on Friday nights. I said that's one day, what about the other six. He moved on, as did I, both probably a little disappointed in what transpired.

My disappointment only goes so far, because I have hope. I noticed that on that same stretch of Main Street there are two apartment/loft conversions either in place or being constructed in existing building. This, I thought to myself is good news, but then I thought a little longer and came up with this list of questions:

1. What is going to draw people to this vacant area?

2. Is the rent going to be affordable for a blue-collar Buffalonian, or are they going to be priced for the white-collar Buffalonian?

3. No matter who lives in these places, where are they going to do their grocery shopping? Get their morning paper? Maybe grab a quick bite to eat? (There are enough empty spaces to be filled with local businesses that could provide these and other services, all within a walkable distance.)

4. How are these small local businesses going to get into these spaces?

5. Are they going to be able to afford the risk? The rent? The taxes? The utilities?

These questions are increasingly made poignant by Donn Esmonde's July 12th "Buffalo News" article that "Weber's has to make it on its own." In this article, Esmonde profiles local business entrepreneur, Steve Desmond, proprietor of Weber's Mustard, a Buffalo original. The article discusses the economic challenges Desmond faces that inhibit the growth of Weber's, including being ineligible for certain utility and tax breaks, because of his small size. Desmond, doesn't complain he just questions why he can't catch a break. I, too, question this, why do local, county, and state governments bend over backwards to give handouts to national chains and other big business, while totally neglecting the small businessperson. It should be evident that this does nothing but erode city, town, community, and regional pride.

All I ask of our public officials is to think about the local impact in the long run. Support small local businesses that have pride and concern about their city and region. If you want Buffalo to return to its halcyon days, think about how you can get people to move back into the city; think about the necessities that people will have if they move into a Main Street atmosphere; think about how people may be able to meet these needs without the use of a car, but on foot or bike; think about the baby steps that it takes to achieve all this. I am a realist, Buffalo's return to prosperity will not happen overnight. But if the leaders of the community make the appropriate decisions that solve the city and region's problems -- not buying into quick fixes, passing the buck, or blaming their predecessors or colleagues -- Buffalo will once again prosper.

Listener Commentator Joseph Foegen is a recent college graduate who wants to stay in Western New York.