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Have we learned anything in the last 40 years?

Rochester Business Journal
June 13, 2014

Here is an adage you may have heard before, but this seems like an appropriate time to remind readers of its elegant wisdom and simplicity, expressed in just eight words:

“A lesson is repeated until it is learned.”

I could not find any citation crediting the author, but the advice is on many axiomatic lists of strategies leading to success. The mention of it evokes various images in my mind. One involves impetuous acts, such as grabbing a hot skillet without a pot holder. Another might be abruptly deciding to make a right turn from the center lane without signaling. There are an endless number of examples, but you get the idea, which is this:

If you don’t learn the lessons from experience, you are doomed to make the same old mistakes. An individual should be smart enough to avoid that situation. The same should hold true for communities.

In Western New York we have our share of slow learners, especially regarding certain topics. Today’s subject is a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills. Erie County owns the present stadium, and an improvement program estimated to cost $130 million is underway.

To review for a moment, the stadium has always been a complicated subject. In the 1960s, there was a lengthy scrimmage between those favoring a facility in the city and those backing the suburbs. It was an emotionally charged issue, with exhausting debate.

A site was eventually agreed upon, and while there was relief and excitement when the battle ended, many recognized the choice of location as a mistake. How did the decision-makers ever blunder into Orchard Park?

Simply stated, there were powerful people aligned against the proposed site in the downtown area, generally between Washington Street and Michigan Avenue. That was the realm of the Buffalo News, then owned by the Butler family, and they wanted no congestion around their printing and distribution facility. Those who favored an urban location stressed the positive influence a stadium near downtown would have on the city. The Butlers marshaled a powerful claque of politicians, bankers and other persons of influence to successfully oppose a city location.

It proved to be a dreadful error, made after years of infighting. The stadium eventually opened in 1973. In the 40 years since, downtown has withered and is only now showing signs of resurgence. In Erie County, as in similar locales, the balance of power years ago shifted away from the city to the suburbs and exurbs. An anti-city philosophy was present during the contentious debate.

Despite that history, we are being subjected to a new torrent of grandiose rhetoric proposing construction of a stadium in such locales as Niagara County and the Buffalo waterfront. Such proposals serve only to distract attention from the underlying issue, which is this: Did we learn anything in the years that followed the Orchard Park decision?

Are we now grownups who are able to recognize that the community deserves to derive a variety of benefits from such an investment, benefits far greater than can be realized from an annual football schedule with about 10 dates?

There are other issues, too. What will become of the enhanced Ralph Wilson Stadium? Do we need a new stadium? Where is the money coming from? Those are all questions that were asked in the ’60s. Now they are again dominating conversations.

Repeat after me:

“A lesson is repeated until it is learned.”

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

6/13/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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