What’s the Matter with Jamestown?

February 23, 2021

On August 1st, 2018, Jamestown, New York celebrated a monumental event. The Rustbelt City south of Buffalo did the unthinkable. Despite all odds, they were able to open the National Comedy Center, at a total cost of $50 million. This was truly an astonishing accomplishment.

This is an absolutely stunning feat, considering the population of Jamestown is less than 30,000. That breaks down to nearly $1,700 for every man, woman and child in the community. Incredible! What is even more amazing to consider, is that with a per capita income of around $19,000, this project costs more than what the average resident brings in per month! Amazing! Or to look at it another way, it costs more than double the average monthly mortgage and nearly triple the average monthly rent. Want to be really blown away, this was all accomplished in a community with a 30% poverty rate! Can you believe it?

What should have been an impossibility, is sadly, a reality. The Jamestown public school system has the highest rate of poverty amongst school age children in Chautauqua County and 17th highest in the State of New York, at 40%. A city that had its status as a Central Library revoked by the State of New York for failing to provide adequate local funding. A city that seemingly is struggling in nearly every regard, was somehow able to pull together $50 million for the National Comedy Center. How can this be?

The Silver Bullet.

The silver bullet is the culprit. The persistent idea that one project, one perfect initiative, one colossal win, will fix everything. And apparently funders have yet to wean themselves from the silver bullet drug. New York State has millions invested in the project, local authorities have raised money, CDBG funds were used, and various other federal programs were used including New Market Tax Credits and Historic Tax Credits. Pretty much every funding source imaginable was used to cobble together funding for this project. Did any of the funders ever ask if the city had a plan to deal with the poverty level? How would the schools improve because of this project? What would be done to ensure this project created local wealth? How would the community keep the library from closing? Would the people of Jamestown’s lives be improved in any meaningful way from this project?

At some point, and pretty early on in the process I assume, the project stops being about anything, but the project. Completing the project becomes the only goal. Community leaders can give themselves a tremendous pat on the back for turning over every possible stone (public funding) to ensure the project comes to fruition. A plethora of government programs were used to pull this together, which really is just one source – taxpayer dollars. The problem is, all this public funding was granted without anyone thinking how this would help the average resident. Was any alternative project considered that may have helped the community grow more self-reliant? Does the economic impact study take into consideration the lack of locally owned business? I worry those conversations didn’t actually happen. These projects don’t start the way we might hope, which is people thinking about “what we can do to increase local wealth and reduce poverty?”, but instead when someone says “you know Lucille Ball was from here, wouldn’t it be great if we built some sort of comedy center? That is sure to help the community.”

Silver bullet projects just don’t deliver the economic impact they promise. That fact that this strategy has not worked in any city yet, has not been a deterrent to city leaders. It’s like trickle down economics, just because 40 years of testing it out has not produced the desired results, is no reason to stop trying. And it’s not just the fact that these projects have much less economic impact than promised, which is a pretty big damn deal, it’s that they actually do harm to the community. In 2018, The Atlantic covered this topic in terms of sports venues , as did the Brookings Institute in this article from 1997. Both cite how overpromised and underdelivered these types of projects can be. They look nice and shiny, but they don’t help the average household. They don’t build local wealth. They don’t foster local ownership. They barely move the civic pride needle.

What compels a community to do such a thing? How would a community struggling with rampant poverty and the possibility of losing their library, ever think spending $50 million on a tourist attraction was a good idea? For this we have about 40 years of “winner take all” community and economic development to blame. It has become accepted wisdom that the only way to improve your community, by any measurable way, is to pull off the big win. The civic center, the arena, the new ballpark, the big manufacturer. Once we have the big project, everything else will fall into place. In the case of the National Comedy Center, the economic impact study stated the project would bring in about $22 million a year to Western New York. Last year the Center touted 66,000 visitors, so each visitor would have had to have spent $333 while in town. Of that $333, very little of what money is spent on these visits really stays in the local economy. I could only find one hotel in the area owned by someone in Western NY. Half of the restaurants are local and half are chains. Money spent on airfare or gas won’t stay in the community. A large percentage of the money being hyped as economic impact is not going to stay in the community. Really, what has been done, was to create another effective means to help facilitate money leaving the community, by building the type of project that will mostly benefit non-locally owned companies. This is the reality behind every silver bullet project. They are always focused on bringing in more people from out of town and they end up being a big “screw you” to all the people in town. The fact that the people behind the project were well intentioned, does not change the fact that the project will not fix what’s wrong.

It’s funny, because pulling together a $50 million dollar project is not easy by any means, but maybe it seems easier than listening to residents, fostering engagement and combating apathy. Maybe trying to create local real estate developers and train local entrepreneurs is too hard. Maybe giving people the tools to fix up their own community is too complicated. Maybe investing in education and LIBRARIES is just antiquated thinking. Maybe we see so many silver bullet projects because it is easier than thinking through the tough stuff. Maybe, the worst is true, that no one believes locals are worth investing in.

Don’t get me wrong here, I know there will be an uptick in local spending. The local tax base will expand, there will be more visitors, and yes- local businesses will see a bit of a bump. There will be an impact, but at what cost? The project cost $50 million. $1,666 for every single person in the community. Do you think the project will ever, ever benefit everyone in the community by $1,666? We all know the answer to this. The economic impact study stated that this will create an additional 32 full time jobs. A $50 million dollar investment will create a lasting impact of 32 jobs. So mathing this out a bit, let’s see. Carry the one. Pi equals 3.14. That comes to over $1.5 million per job. Hot damn! Those are some good jobs. Okay, so it’s doubtful that any of these jobs pay anything near that. But let’s play around. So we could have given 32 people in the community $1.5 million dollars. That would probably go a long way. Or we could have given all 10,000 people under the poverty line an additional $5,000. Both options would have been an exponentially better use of funds, but not necessarily provide the local term sustainable type of economic development we are looking for. Who knows though, math is hard.

So here’s another idea, take 10% of that $50 million and invest it into the people that live in the community.

Use the funds and legal tools available to cities to acquire the vacant buildings and empty lots that litter downtown.

Use those funds to bring an organization like the Incremental Development Alliance to train locals how to become real estate developers.

Use those funds to lend to locals at 0% to fund the renovation and new construction of property in the heart of the community.

While at the same time, use those funds to train locals in becoming carpenters and masonry workers and plumbers and painters and electricians.

Then use more of those funds to invest in teaching entrepreneurship classes and helping to write business plans and purchase inventory.

Put just 10% of that $50 million into creating local wealth and enriching the people of Jamestown, not just with money, and employment, but purpose and meaning and a sense of accomplishment and pride. We do not suffer from a lack of resources, but a lack of vision and faith in the people that call our towns home. We keep trusting that the economic development field knows how to improve our towns, but they keep rolling out the same failed ideas.

Jamestown isn’t unique in getting suckered into this backwards strategy for community improvement. This is common thinking, “if we can just get people to come and visit our community, our community will start to improve.” Like saying, “if more people will just come to the game, the team will play better.” Nearly every community thinks that if we can just land the big project, people will come from miles around to drop all their savings off before heading home. Honestly, it is a lack of belief in the community itself that leads to such thinking, and buying into the “tourism first” strategy. You will never fix your community by focusing on people outside your community. It’s like a sad Hollywood tale of someone that pinned their hopes on stardom making them feel loved. Low self-esteem cannot be repaired by any amount of outside adulation. It can only be fixed when we learn to love ourselves.

Cities, like people, need a little self love. They could all use a little self care. They should tend a little more to the townspeople. When we depend on landing the big company, the tourist, the outsider investment, we are telling our towns we are not good enough to do these things. We are saying, we can’t fix what’s broken, we need someone else. As a parent, I take the approach, you break it, you fix it. As cities, we take the approach of, we broke it, I hope someone else will come and fix it. It is not, will not, and can not be the responsibility of someone from outside of your community to come in and make your community better. Not the business owner, the housing developer, the tourist, the national chain, no no no. We must empower residents to improve their own communities. If you need a partner’s validation to feel good about yourself, your relationship is in some real trouble. We don’t need outsiders to fix what’s wrong. Tourism helps for sure, but it won’t ever fix a 30% poverty rate. You know what will? Investing in locals. Investing in the community. Oh also, when you invest in yourself, you have the added benefit of being more attractive to others. To visitors, to investors, to business owners, to developers.

Despite $50 million spent to make people laugh, prioritizing a tourist destination over a library is overwhelmingly sad and indicative of our modern approach to community revitalization. The National Comedy Center may be a jewel, but it can’t outshine apathy, it can’t outshine a lack of community, it can’t outshine a 30% poverty rate. For the average person that lives in Jamestown, this project probably doesn’t make them feel any better, more connected, more engaged, or prouder. So many people live in places where they don’t feel there is any opportunity. Places where hope is so hard to come by. I know how it makes me feel to spend a day amongst deteriorating buildings, imagine how it makes people feel to spend a lifetime amongst them.

We don’t have to keep doing this. We don’t have to keep taking the same failed approach. We don’t have to trust planners and economic development experts. We can stop taking people’s word for it. I am going to let you in on a little secret, they don’t know what they are doing and they don’t learn from their mistakes. Many of them are just part of the system that continues to impoverish communities by not focusing on self-reliance and local investment. They aren’t fixing anything. All their market data and studies keep telling us the same thing. Here is what they never say though, your community suffers from apathy, your community suffers from a lack of self esteem, your community does not believe in itself, your community is broken, from the inside. No one gets paid to tell communities the truth, they get paid to make you feel good. They get paid to push the silver bullet.

You may hate to hear it, but we can’t get better until we are honest about our problems. I have dealt with anxiety before, I’ve felt dysfunctional at times. I’ve struggled being the type of person I want to be. I’ve made poor decisions and been self-destructive. I’ve had low self-esteem. You hide it for a while and hope no one notices, but they do. You are ashamed because you don’t feel proud of who you are, so you try and keep to yourself, but everyone can see it. You fake it, hoping it will get better, but it doesn’t. Then one day, you throw up your hands and admit you need help. I have worked with so many places that really, really need help, but have trouble admitting it. They want to keep pumping out promotional videos to convince themselves it’s okay. They keep reminiscing about the good times and ignore what’s happening now. They keep convincing themselves that better days are just around the corner. At some point, you have to admit that apathy is an issue, that a lack of civic pride is plaguing the community, that the current strategies just aren’t working. It is not a matter of money, or circumstance, but about how we people feel inside. We have to go through the process of improving ourselves. What you learn on the other side, is that you have to fix yourself, no one else can do it. People can assist, they can coach, they can offer advice, but they can’t do the work. The community itself, must do the work of rebuilding itself, otherwise it will never work.

We have to do the work. Pride requires participation. We can fix what is wrong in our own towns and we can love ourselves again. In fact, we are desperate to do so. There are three simple things that a community can do to start to build self-esteem and grow more self-reliant.

Pick up – a broom, pick up some trash, pick up a paint scraper. Any small change, any tiny improvement, is still an improvement and it is a step in the right direction. It will make you feel better and everyone that sees it will feel better.

Speak up – stand up for what you believe in. Say something when you see something you don’t approve of. Resume having standards and start raising them.

Get down – Invite people over, say hi, cookout in your front yard, have a party. When we begin caring more about our neighbors, we begin caring more about our places. This is when change becomes possible.

There is no silver bullet, but a million small gestures. Our places didn’t decline overnight and they won’t bounce back overnight, but if we all do a small part, they WILL bounce back. They WILL return. The thing I know from working in this field for a couple of decades, is that absolutely every one of us wants to love their community, we just have to give them the chance.

Thank you to the individual from The Prendergast Library Association for sharing your story of Jamestown with me. The above commentary above is my own and does not reflect the opinion of The Prendergast Library. 

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