Monday, March 24, 2014

A self-image problem

It's almost inevitable.

A good-sized sporting event comes to Western New York, one that attracts out-of-town visitors. The sports departments gets to work, covering the various athletic aspects thoroughly. As an example, I was a small part of the team that put together The Buffalo News' coverage of the NCAA basketball games here last week, and I was quite proud of the package that was put together on a daily basis.

And what do news departments do? Run to find some tourists and ask them if they are having a good time. If they say yes, and they usually do, we pat ourselves on the back.

This all leaves me with a feeling that the area is still insecure of its image. I've seen that in people, but it has to be a little rare for towns. Well, it's about time we got a shot of confidence.

Historically, Buffalo has some reason to be nervous about the actions of outsiders. After all, non-natives have been in charge of large segments of the economy for years. The region was a manufacturing hub for decades, which often means outside interests have placed factories here. That had some obvious benefits at one time, but our economic fate was dictated by the whims of others. That means we were hit hard when some big factories closed when economic conditions, and when the St. Lawrence Seaway was built to take a huge chunk of the shipping industry away.

The area economy is still making a transition from those days, and it's painful. We also have the usual problems associated with good-sized cities in terms of poverty. But there have been some signs of hope in recent years. The most obvious comes in the relatively recent discovery that Buffalo has a nice waterfront, and we should construct facilities for people to gather there. That's only taken a half-century, but we're making progress.

Buffalo obviously isn't New York and Chicago when it comes to hosting events, but at least the area has some experience at it. The NCAA tournament is the latest example of this. It's been held here a few times in the past 14 years, and we learned some things along the way. Back in 2000, we discovered that the biggest problem for visitors was trying to find something to eat between the first day's double-headers. That's always going to be a bit of an issue when 19,000 people are let loose on the town with 90 minutes to eat, but we've continued to get better at it. Otherwise, the region seems to be following the hospitality game plan nicely.

In short, I have plenty of confidence that we can handle such events nicely, and will be doing so for the foreseeable future. I'm actually more worried about times when there isn't an NCAA tournament around - and let's specialize on the summer months for that discussion.

We have one of the greatest natural resources to generate tourism right up the road. It's called Niagara Falls. Plenty of people go there every year when the weather turns nicer (even though my personal opinion is that the Falls are very underrated in the winter if you can stand being outside long enough to look at them). How do we get those visitors to stay longer, and how do we get more such people to show up?

Those questions have haunted us for years, and we're still working on it. It's going to take some more work as well as some international cooperation. Still, the rewards could be large.

In the meantime, I've traveled enough to realize that every region has its good points and bad points, and there are always portions worth exploring. They all can be proud of something. That's why I always look down on those who make fun of other regions of the country - in journalism, it's a sign of unimaginative writing - and why I don't do it. That's especially true when talking about my own home town.

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Monday, March 17, 2014



That's the sound of an entire state letting loose with a sigh of relief. In this case, it comes with the weekend announcement that Donald Trump has decided not to run for Governor of New York. That means we don't have to avoid listening to him from now until November.

Now, let's start with one basic fact: no one was surprised by the announcement. Mr. Trump likes the idea of people asking him to run for office, since it gets his name in the newspapers and on television. He seems to enjoy that ... a lot. But as far as actually running for office, well, that would be a lot of work.

Besides, he might lose. Come to think of it, he probably would lose a race for Governor in New York. After all, the current Governor is relatively popular in the polls, and the Democratic party has a good-sized edge in enrollment figures. Do you think Mr. Trump's ego, which by most accounts is the size of Montana, could handle a crushing rejection by the voters?

Of course not. Better to withdraw from consideration with a note that said he could win the election, but has moved on to much bigger plans. Naturally, saying that you'd win is impossible to disprove. This was what happened when there was Presidential talk about Trump; he encouraged the conversation and then headed for the sidelines.

It's easy, at the least, to admire Trump's campaign strategy. He said he would run for Governor if the state's Republican leadership handed him the nomination without opposition. When the group couldn't do that, he exited with the charge that the leaders were "totally dysfunctional."

But the approach had a flaw. All's it took was one person to not go along with the plan - one who would gather a little support from party bosses - and in theory a unanimous vote would be spoiled. That seemed inevitable, as we aren't into coronations in this country, and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino provided the necessary opposition. He may get a lot of votes as a thank you.

There is a point to be made about all this besides making fun of a billionaire, which admittedly can be good sport.

The recession of 2008 not only made billions and billions of dollars disappear from the economy, but it also scared the population. That fear has been part of the political landscape ever since. It comes up in a lot of ways. For example, small business owners have become something close to saints - even though the rate of failure always has been high, no matter what the good intentions of the proprietors were. Ever look at how many storefronts on commercial streets change in a year? I'm all for small business, big business and in-between business. We can use the jobs, and the "system" of giving tax breaks to those who ask is political pandering at its worst. (It's far better to have one fair rate for everyone.) But looking through rose-colored glasses never helped anything.

In addition, there have been a few political candidates who come from the private sector and say that it's time "to run government like a business." This is a catchy phrase, and there are times and circumstances when it is a good idea.

But there are two obvious flaws with it. One, government has functions that no business would touch. You could argue about how many of those functions there needs to be, but that's an argument for another day. We can all agree for the need on items ranging from national defense to environmental protection.

Two, business leaders are used to getting their own way within their own companies. Sometimes when they make the transition to the public sector, they find out that they just can't order everyone around by whim like they used to do. In Erie County, we found just such a man in Chris Collins, who quickly found the number of "yes, sirs" decreased over time from such people as legislators ... until voters said "no, sir" emphatically when he asked for a second term.

Trump, who no doubt makes Collins seem modest in comparison, probably would have hated that part of being governor. He's better off doing something he's good at doing most of the time - making money. The rest of us will be better off too.

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Sunday, March 02, 2014

Scratching my head again

It's been two memorable nights at the workplace this week - back-to-back, no less.

On Friday, my Twitter feed suddenly was filled at 6:30 p.m. with the news that Ryan Miller and Steve Ott were not on the ice for the Buffalo Sabres, even though they were in the original lineup for that night's game. Kremlin-watchers correctly figured out that some sort of trade had happened. Miller and Ott had been told to pack for St. Louis shortly before that.

Then on Saturday, stories about problems in the Sabres' front office started to circulate on Twitter. At first, we guessed that something might be up with team president Ted Black. Then the scuttlebutt started to spread in social media that it was Pat LaFontaine who might be in the middle of it. Sure enough, a news release was emailed to us later in the night that LaFontaine had resigned his position as president of hockey operations, and would be returning to a position with the National Hockey League.

As you could imagine, we "tore apart" a few planned pages for the sports section as the night went on. Our layout editor for the two nights has applied for combat pay.

There was only one thing that could be certain about all this: We couldn't blame Darcy Regier for any of it.

The name of the Sabres' former general manager did come up in one out of town story I saw, at least. Someone said the Miller/Ott deal was another example of the Sabres getting maximum value for their assets, following in the footsteps of trades for players like Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek. In other words, new general manager Tim Murray is following the same plan as Regier did.

The biggest drawback with this is that the Sabres aren't going to have many gate attractions on the team next season. I'm not sure who will be on the cover of the calendar, either. There aren't many players of note left who will be able to drink adult beverages in commercial establishments.

When the Sabres realized that their planned nucleus wasn't going to be nearly good enough to get the job done, they opted for a complete rebuild. The question that will haunt the near-term future of the team is - was that completely necessary? Is the team now unneccesarily bad because of a lack of good NHL veterans in an effort to reach better days? Time will decide that one, but pretty obviously, once the course had been set there was no turning back. That's why trading Miller made sense, no matter that he had become the face of the franchise.

However ... if you are looking for a logical explanation for events surrounding LaFontaine's departure, look elsewhere. I got nothing. News columnist Bucky Gleason was right on target Sunday morning when he said there are only unanswered questions by the somewhat mysterious resignation. Statements in the news conference on Sunday only added to the lack of clarity. You can play all sorts of word games in these situations without telling what happened; heck, I used to do that for a living.

The initial restructuring of the team was always a little odd. LaFontaine and Black both had the title of president, leaving open the question of what happened when they disagreed on something. Black is said to be something less than a beloved boss around the office. We don't know much about LaFontaine's management style, but we do know that he quit a position after a brief stay with the Islanders over a dispute with ownership.

Plus, we've had a top executive immediately hire a new coach, take his time to hire a new general manager, and then leave. What could Murray be thinking about now, especially with the news that a replacement for LaFontaine isn't coming? Heck, he just got a promotion out of all of this.

And then there's Nolan, who apparently was about set to sign a long-term contract with the team. Now his friend and his boss - same guy - are gone. Is he having 1997 flashbacks? And just to add to the story, Nolan certainly knows this is his last shot at an NHL coaching job. Fold now, fold forever - as we say at the poker table.

There's more intrigue to come here in the coming weeks, and probably more head-scratching to come. But I'll throw in my usual point about professional sports teams. They usually lose for a reason, and that reason isn't so obvious from the outside. But there are a great many players in the story at the First Niagara Center, and it would be nice to see them row in the same direction and at the same time. It sure doesn't sound like that's been happening lately.

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