Regions, not cities, are the units of global commerce

June 16, 1997|By Neal R. Peirce

CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. -- America's first-ever ''Chautauqua'' on regional governance was held June 1-4 where great discourse on society's future has flourished since the 1870s -- the Chautauqua Institution south of Buffalo in upstate New York.

Delegates came from 15 states and Canada, including such citi-state areas as Chattanooga, Cleveland, Portland, Oregon, and Hamilton-Wentworth, Ontario. They brought success stories of reinvigorating inner cities, strengthening older suburbs, combating sprawl and pushing sustainable economic development.

Hundreds of civic activists, block-club leaders and local officials from Buffalo, Jamestown and other communities in western New York came to hear about and debate the regional issues.

National experts presented a consistent message: Start thinking and begin acting collaboratively, or urban rot will creep out from center city across one ring of suburbs after another, trailing poverty and shriveling economic growth in its wake.

Sprawl, said David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, decimates homeowners' and businesses' property values in inner cities and successive rings of suburbia. Older suburbs get hurt the worst. Cities and suburbs should press for urban growth boundaries before it's too late.

Globalization makes regions the units of competition worldwide, insisted the University of Pennsylvania's Theodore Hershberg. After hearing Buffalo and Erie County officials suggest that small-scale service mergers were essentially all they'd consider, Mr. Hershberg reacted:

''This is no time for incrementalism, tinkering at the edges. We have to motivate people, change our society. The global economy is like a great train coming through every part of the world. If you don't build a station, you get left behind.''

What gave the Chautauqua sessions their vibrancy was the national-local mix. Local observers noted the difficulty of getting New York municipalities, each with full taxing and land-use powers, to work together. Others stressed the barriers to regional tax-base sharing or urban growth boundaries erected by a New York legislature heavily influenced by lobbies and apportioned to favor incumbents.

National experts -- Lenneal Henderson of the University of Baltimore, Douglas Henton of Collaborative Economics in California, Harvard's Alan Altshuler, Anita Summers of the University of Pennsylvania and others -- reminded them of the price of inaction.

And when the New Yorkers agonized about the political barriers, their pessimism was tempered by hearing the dazzling payoffs -- revived downtowns, economic growth, cleaner environments, national acclaim -- that Portland and Chattanooga gained by smart democratic planning.

The western New Yorkers left the conference ''budding regionalists.'' They declared ''the birth of a new community -- the region'' -- and said they would make growth work for cities as well as suburbs, and reduce economic and racial disparities.

It's all just talk without intense follow-up work. The State University of New York at Buffalo looms as the most important convener and resource -- especially in a region with few top corporate headquarters.

SUNY-Buffalo has an exemplary regional-governance project led by President William Greiner, a national leader in university-community partnerships.

But the ''budding regionalists'' will also have to work closely with the business-led Greater Buffalo Partnership and such activist office holders as Buffalo Comptroller Joel Giambra, who's even suggested dissolving Buffalo into surrounding Erie County.

''Chautauquas'' could work for other American regions -- with two caveats.

First, a ''civic entrepreneur,'' a person who wants to champion a new regional agenda, has to take the lead. Kevin Gaughan, a Hamburg, N.Y., attorney and a former congressional candidate, conceived and made the Chautauqua conference successful by sheer will power, aided by former Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine.

Second requirement: The local press has to care. The Buffalo News assigned its top reporters and columnist and gave the sessions extensive daily coverage. Regionalism is now a credible, live issue in western New York.

Still, it will be a tough sell. William Dodge, chief of the National Association of Regional Councils, reminded the delegates that for many people, ''regionalism remains an unnatural act among rarely consenting jurisdictions.''

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 6/16/97

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