Collective amnesia

It is one of the great ironies of Geneseo that a community that enjoys the rare privilege of being designated a National Historic Landmark has such a poor memory of its own recent history. This is the inescapable conclusion drawn from reading Bill Lofquist’s four-part series on Gateway District Zoning which concludes later this week.

Bill has done a great service by digging through old minutes to remind us what really happened way back in 1994, and even found some embarrassing quotes from some of the leaders in the Gateway planning, many of whom are still holding positions of leadership in the town today. But how did this fit of collective amnesia occur?

In my experience, it is not that uncommon around here. In 2005 the Town and Village agreed to spend $35,000 on a traffic access management study of the Route 20A corridor. It was only by digging around on the web last year that I stumbled on the fact that Geneseo had already completed such a study just three years before in 2002!

True, the scope of the later study was expanded slightly (from Groveland Road down the hill to Main Street), but as one who served on the committee for the later study, I can tell you that there was absolutely no mention or use made of the previous study. Apparently it was put on the shelf and forgotten while the new consultants happily went about re-inventing the wheel.

A similar problem arose at the county with its institutional memory of the early Gateway development and funding. After combing through the paper trail, I reported that $300,000 of the money used to fund the construction of Volunteer Road and water and sewer service for the Gateway had come from the County’s Infrastructure Fund, tax money, which by both state enabling legislation and local county policy, was strictly prohibited from being used for retail development.

At a critical point in the County Planning Board’s deliberations on the Newman PDD application, however, the County Attorney wrote a letter saying that my conclusions were wrong and that no such funding had occurred. It was only after I provided documentary evidence including minutes of the Board of Supervisor’s and the County Administrator’s own Annual Message that the County Attorney made a half-hearted retraction of his claim. (Although the false story lives on in the developer’s Draft EIS!)

While it is perhaps understandable that consultants out to make a quick buck, or officials of the county, which has a lot to gain by making Geneseo into a sales-tax cash cow, might be tempted to put their thumbs on the scale, to what can we attribute the general public’s lack of memory?

I think its a combination of factors. For one Geneseo is a more transient community than many. The presence of the college as the main employer is one reason for that. Just as there is another class of new students arriving every fall, there is a constant flow of new professors, administrators and other employees. That seems to be the nature of academic life.

Secondly, there has been quite a bit of new development in the last 20 years, and not just in the village. The Open Space study recently presented by Prof. David Robertson showed that a lot of development has occurred along rural roads in the town, especially in areas that have easy access to I-390. What we are seeing is the continued conversion of Geneseo into a bedroom community for Rochester.

As one who campaigned throughout the town all summer, I can confirm that the concern about local development issues is much less intense among town residents than it is in the village. This makes sense since many of those residents do not have to fight the traffic problems on Rt. 20A every day, but also because many of these people are more recent residents of the town and may in part have been attracted here by the convenience of Geneseo’s more recent retail additions.

Finally, however, I think the biggest factor has been the leadership the town has had for the last 8 years. It is hard for the flock to stay on the path when its leaders are driving them into the Big Box wilderness.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that the two architects of Geneseo’s Big Box Bonanza, former Supervisor Wes Kennison and Town Board member Mike Tenalio had very limited involvement in Geneseo politics prior to taking office. Kennison is fond of telling the story of how he was drafted to run for Supervisor in 1999 even though he knew nothing about local politics. It showed.

Mr. Tenalio had plenty of experience in local politics, but all of it was in Livonia where he was on the village board and served a stint as mayor. Thus it was that the two key leaders in the rush for development were people who had not been involved in the first Big Box Battle in Geneseo just a decade earlier, and apparently did not know about all the careful planning that had been done to limit future retail sprawl.

The answer to this line of argument, of course, has been that times change and that our recent town board was just reacting to different market conditions and political realities. There may be some truth in that, but it would be more convincing if it were coming from people who understood a little more of how we got here in the first place.

A less charitable interpretation, and one that I, as a close observer of the situation, hold, is that our recent Supervisor suffered from a bad case of Edifice Complex. He seemed driven, for whatever reason, to leave his mark on the world in the form of big retail boxes. One had only to witness his grandstanding over the Super Wal-Mart, which was not even in his jurisdiction, to know that he had developed a messianic zeal to spread the Gospel of Low Cost Uber Alles!

Now that we have new leadership, is it too much to think that our long town nightmare is coming to an end? Did the voters finally see that Emperor Wes had no clothes? And did they choose Will, not for his promise to bring Lowe’s, but more for the promise they saw of restoring sanity and balance to our local government?

One can hope. And if not, it is important to remember the caution of historian George Santayana. No, not the familiar one about learning from history, but in light of recent developments, this one seems more appropriate: “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.”

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4 responses to “Collective amnesia

  1. Forget amnesia (no pun intended!) Local leaders and their ability to become well versed in or to accurately recall the history of an issue, whether Wal-Mart or Lowe’s, has more to do with other complex group behaviors which are more closely related to abdication than to amnesia.

    Local leaders are not immune to being overwhelmed by a national patterns. There is the expectation that many national issues will eventually become local.This provides plenty of lead time to form opinions about them. These issues also take on an what many perceive as a “pattern.”

    One well known “pattern” is the generally ineffective opposition to Big Box stores when they enter the local scene. As a result, many local officials just go along with what they perceive is the winning side. This is more an abdication of responsibility than bothering to research the local history of dealing with these issues of national origin. After all, these kinds of retail operations consistently bypass local zoning.

    For many, the tactics of the Big Box retailers create outrage that they are just another example of the eroding freedom of local communities to choose their own destiny. Others just shrug off the issues swirling around them. Then, too, the memories of local leaders of long standing, on how selected issues have been handled over a period of time – even when they have been closely involved in that history – can be totally inaccurate.

    Finally,lack of closely examining the history of local issues of any kind could also be the result of a shortage of time to do so. We all now lead overburdened lives. In short, in any community there is a complex web of reasons people – even local leaders – shun both the history of and informed involvement in local events.

    In a famous case of “Amnesia”, one who initially was successful in manipulating people of influence in the Russian exile community was a woman who claimed to be the missing Anastasia of royal Russian lineage. She parlayed amnesia into years of press coverage until she was finally exposed as an impostor. She ultimately had little or no impact on the populace other than providing years of entertainment.

    In like manner, many local leaders in communities across the US do a very good job of mimicking informed, responsible elected officials. They are masters at making voters believe that they have an educated grasp of the issues. The result of this is that they are eventually exposed but not before their actions have a large impact on the lives of the local people.

  2. Would you include your support of Wal-Mart in the collective amnesia category?

  3. Good stuff. Thanks.

  4. Phillip J. Bracchi

    Greg,

    Please understand the zoning in place at the time of the proposal for the Super Walmart allowed a development of that type and size. There were no legal means available to prevent the development. If it went to court, the developer was certain to win as the allowability of the project was already in place. All the Village Planning Board could do was to ask for concessions regarding materials, signage and lighting.
    Other than that, their hands were tied by the zoning of record which the Village had not had the foresight to change. No one really expected that Walmart wanted a bigger store until the proposal was submitted, and then it was too late.

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