To build healthy neighborhoods, a city needs more than federal or state funding, more than feasibility studies or urban design plans.
A city needs proud residents who are confident their neighborhood's future is bright. It needs fresh-thinking and creative leaders who are willing to make tough decisions.
That was the message from Charles Buki, a prominent leader in neighborhood revitalization and the author of the city of Jamestown's neighborhood design plan, as he set the tone at a conference hosted by SUNY Fredonia's Center for Regional Advancement.
OBSERVER Photo by John Mackowiak
Charles Buki, a prominent leader in neighborhood revitalization, addresses his audience of elected officials, neighborhood activists and community leaders. He spoke about methods of turning around weak housing markets.
The conference was given the title, "Successful Strategies for Building Healthy Neighborhoods: Bolstering Neighborhood Confidence in Weak Markets."
"The community that reels in the family who can organize the Brownies and coach youth soccer and who will park their car in the driveway and who knows the green stuff out front is grass and that grass needs mowing," Buki said, "this is the community that is healthy or headed in a healthy direction."
In a "ruthlessly competitive choice-driven world" neighborhoods need to do what they can to make themselves appealing to potential and current residents, Buki said. He likened it to going dateless to a school dance.
"You're not going to dance with a pretty girl, if you haven't taken a shower, shaved, combed your hair and put on nice clothes," Buki said. "You're not going to get a date, if you don't come prepared to convince someone to dance with you. So, that means you have to figure out what you do well, and you've got to promote it. Cities and regions are no different."
Buki challenged the leaders and activists in the room to find the courage to make the difficult decisions that revitalization requires - to find region's strengths and to distribute investment wisely.
City of Dunkirk officials said the city has focused its resources on the waterfront.
"We've made a concerted effort into focusing on investment in our waterfront area," said Kory Ahlstrom, the city's director of development, "and using that as a catalyst to spur investment south into the rest of the city."
In some neighborhoods, the city has looked to build relationships with active neighborhood groups.
"We've also tried to be involved in neighborhoods that were getting involved themselves," Ahlstrom said, "where we weren't just planting a seed with nobody to tend to it."
After Buki's address, the conference split up into four different panel discussions.
Michele Bautistia - a representative from the Park Avenue Restoration Committee, or PARC, which has been striving to revitalize the Washington Park neighborhood - was featured in one of the panel discussions. She and her fellow panelists spoke about their experience in organizing a neighborhood from the grass roots.
Another panel focused on building neighborhood confidence. Addressing weak housing demand was the discussion topic for the third group. The fourth panel looked for ways to "green" the neighborhood - linking green initiatives to revitalization.
While idea-sharing and conversations are essential, action is just as necessary. Chuck Cornell, director of the Center for Regional Advancement, hopes the talks will result in a new push to build confidence and strengthen housing markets.
"This is a regional issue. It's not just Dunkirk or Jamestown or the village of Brocton or somewhere else. It's about all of the Northeast, where we have some weak markets," Cornell said. "My hope is to come out of here with some ideas and solutions to inspire people to organize and to make their markets stronger and healthier."
At the end of the conference, Congressman Brian Higgins, D-South Buffalo, spoke about reinventing the regional economy. Western New York needs to embrace change and welcome innovation in order to make its neighborhoods healthy again, he said.
"Unless you do something about your economic decline, nothing is going to happen," Higgins said, encouraging conference-attendees to avoid a wait-and-see approach. "You have to stand up for yourself. You have to demonstrate that you have the confidence to embrace new ideas and new change to move forward. It's fundamental to community development."
The government's role in community and economic development must be infrastructure improvement, according to Higgins. New infrastructure can boost confidence, he argued.
"The image of Western New York has been old, declining and industrial. We are changing that because an image of a community is largely defined by what it looks like," Higgins said. "If you change that image to something new, vibrant and exciting, it changes the whole attitude. It lifts the confidence."
Rose Floramo, councilperson of Dunkirk's third ward and an active member of PARC, left the conference hopeful that neighborhood groups and Dunkirk officials will continue to bolster confidence and pride.
"Once you clean-up one, the second one will start," Floramo said. "It's almost like when I buy a dress, somebody else has to buy a better one. It's the same thing with neighborhoods when you get right down to it. If I'm fixing my house up, my neighbors will try to fix theirs."
Ahlstrom, from Dunkirk's development office, found the number of city residents who were in attendance to be promising. People who are willing to learn about how to build healthy neighborhoods are likely to contribute to the city's rebound, he said.
Since Len Faulk, a SUNY Fredonia professor emeritus, founded the Center for Regional Advancement, the vision has always been to act as a catalyst for regional governance and development.
Faulk attended the conference and said he was "tremendously pleased" that the vision and commitment to regional issues have continued.
"Neighborhoods are the critical area that we have not spent much time on," Faulk said. "Particularly, we haven't spent time on the real key, which is what are the things that will help people decide to stay in their areas and reinvest. Finding the carrots and the sticks to make that happen is critical, so I'm excited. This is the first conference countywide that we've had on the subject of market-driven neighborhoods."