It Takes Experienced Leadership to Rebuild Niagara

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By: Ken Hamilton

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the things that once made Niagara great.  One such lesson should be that it is hard to reclaim what we rarely have had.

Despite the position of many Niagarans, process chemical manufacturing was one of those things that built the city.  All of the elements necessary for it to have happened were either already here or simply readily built.  Not only was there an abundance of non-contact process cooling waters in the fast-flowing Niagara River that could safely pass through the facilities and then ultimately slip down the gorge through penstocks to turn the generators that make the much needed electricity to fire the furnaces.

Added to the formula was an abundance of low-cost indigenous laborers that once flooded the fields of the American Southlands, and those immigrants that dug through the coal-laded hills of places like Pennsylvania.  And cargo railroads were spreading through America’s Northlands as if they were a band of giant barn spiders that were building competing webs to capture every target of opportunity that they could.

These things were being done in an age when the world’s great minds were also interested in finding their destiny; and, for the most part, they were not the famous hoteliers. But gone are the great non-resident minds like Acheson, Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and others.

The river remains, and it produces more power today than ever.  But the power is put onto a grid, and then sold to the highest volume bidders; leaving those relatively few and low volume souls that live near the point of production with peaking prices. Enough of those railroad tracks are still here, though only 2 active switchyards are still operating in the city.

In a private conversation with former Niagara Falls Schools Superintendent Henry Kalfas, he explained that the ultimate decline of the city wasn’t just due to the plants leaving.  It was the coincidental exiting of those ingenious minds who knew how to build, run and manage the facilities, which at their height once hired nearly 60,000 of the region’s citizens.  Their absence created the historical vacuum of progressive, enlightened and experienced leadership that was incapable of making good decisions.

The last edition of this paper headlined the story, ‘Residents from the Niagara Falls community gathered Downtown this morning to show their displeasure in New York State’s handling of city resources’.  Kalfas went on to say that when the owners/plant managers of the facilities thought that the city needed something, they went ahead and did it. If they felt that it wasn’t proper for them to do so, they passed it off to the local chamber of commerce.  Failing that, then, and only then, they passed it off to the politicians.

Kalfas lowered his head and slowly shook it from side to side, and then momentarily pausing in thought, he raised it, looked me in the eyes, sadly saying that all that we have left are now the politicians.

I applaud the organizers of Reclaim Niagara for hosting the rally, reciting what the now-gone Kalfas would have said, “We can’t continue to let the residents of Niagara Falls be taken advantage of by politicians in Albany.”

It was well and good, especially when added to what Jesse Jackson said in announcing his presidential candidacy in 1984.  “If we had our fair share of representation at the local level, then we could live with anybody in the White House.” I say in Albany as well.

Most of those in Washington and Albany started their careers at the local levels, and as Jackson might say, “They stepped onto your porch, shook your hands and y’all voted them in and upwards!”

And that’s the problem. As Walt Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo said in 1970, “We have met the enemy and it is us!” We voted for it all, over and over again. The lesson from process chemistry is in that if a process was working well at one point, but not now, then in a stepwise reversal, systematically undo what ‘you’ last did until the system is properly running again.

Perhaps residency is killing us and not giving us the opportunity to choose value-based leaders who are proven progressive, enlightened and experienced to rebuild Niagara; something that we rarely have.  If not, then what good are rallies?

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