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State of New York State History

REDC: Funding “Hunger Games” Where History Is the Loser

Goshen Legoland (photo by Legoland)

Over the years, I have reported on the funding available to the history community through the REDC process. Recently, I have had cause to review that pitiful process. The impetus for this review was an eblast from Erika Sanger, Executive Director, Museum Association of New York (MANY) on November 29. I posted that notice on November 30 at the conclusion of the response from Paul D’Ambrosio, President and CEO of the Fenimore Art Museum and Farmers’ Museum to an earlier post on NYSHA.  Erika  testified on December 5 at the New York State Assembly’s Standing Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts, and Sports Development’s Annual Budget Oversight Hearing of the 2017-2018 State Budget. The purpose of this hearing is to review the impact and effectiveness of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) grants awarded throughout the State and arts projects funded by NYSCA. She asks for comments about the funding.

Rosa Fox, the municipal historian for Huron sent Erika an email response with a copy to me and gave me permission to incorporate it into a post. I first met Rosa at the new municipal historians session of the annual conference of the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS), my favorite session at the conference. Putting aside all the details of how she became the historian, once she was appointed she learned that she also had three buildings/museums to maintain. Here is her reply to the MANY request for comment:

 Good Morning Erika,

This morning I replied to the survey you are using to help build your testimony for next week’s Budget Oversight Committee. So glad to know you are doing this and that you have reached out to us – in the field – to inquire as to our experiences/thoughts. Thank you!

I am a very very small town municipal historian. You may not even have heard of Huron, NY.  The town is located in Wayne County (Upstate – about half way between Rochester and Syracuse).  Huron has no village – just lots of rolling apple orchards. We are well known for Chimney Bluffs State Park. Huron also has Lake Ontario as its northern border and is blessed with three embayments that provide plentiful recreation during all seasons – as long as the water levels are sensible. That is another story. 

I started the historian gig in 2015 – about six months after I retired from 35 years of teaching – middle school band. In addition to the role of historian, I found myself in charge of three historic buildings. One of the buildings functions as archives and museum. The other two are historic buildings that are open several times a year for public visitation – an 1871 schoolhouse and a grange building. 

In the first couple years of my role as town historian, I attended the REDC-CFA meetings in Rochester with great hopes of applying for a grant to assist with the restoration of our historic grange building that was beginning to fall into disrepair. The entire REDC-CFA process was so discouraging and unattainable, I decided to forget about REDC-CFA. The grange building projects are being broken down into small – bite-sized pieces the town can handle. With the help of smaller, local, less cumbersome grant assistance and local donors, we will probably have the restoration completed by about 2030 or so. 

In my written reply on your survey, I commented that the REDC-CFA process appears to be geared for more populated communities. I know of very few communities in Wayne County that have benefited from REDC-CFA monies. I have spoken with a number of local historians and others – and they are all very discouraged by the process. I have also heard this same sentiment at out APHNYS conferences. Peter Feinman has also written a number of very eloquent articles that I have found express my sentiment about the whole REDC charade. I’m sure you are familiar with Peter’s writings [Erika is.]. If you are not, please let me know and I would be happy to send you some links. 

I am of the opinion that if anything positive can be done for small town museums, parks, arts organizations, historians, etc – it would be to get back to the decentralized grant process that was in place twenty years ago. I had written several successful grants for our community at that time, and also served on the grant review panel for the Wayne County Arts Council.

That process brought people – with common goals together. It was grass roots. It provided funds to small communities for activities and projects they could not otherwise afford. Because the funds were of smaller amounts – generally everyone who applied got something. We always had a grants reception for the grantees. That was a great way for people to network and learn about each other’s communities and projects, and get ideas for their community for future years. The arts thrived during the decentralized granting period. 

Erica, please feel free to quote, share, do whatever you like with this letter. You may or may not agree with my thoughts about REDC. You may be able to show this small town historian who has three historic buildings to oversee that the REDC-CFA process is more attainable that she thinks. If you can – hallelujah. 

In closing, thank you again for reaching out to us for our thoughts and experiences. Good luck next week. Look forward to reading about your testimony and experience before the panel.

Historically,

Rosa Fox
Town of Huron Historian

In my opinion, Rosa speaks not just for the Wayne County history community but for the overwhelming majority of municipal historians and historical societies who are shut out from the REDC process and no longer have Member Items to help them on a small scale.

Development Money, in Cuomo Era, Is Disbursed With Dazzle

This issue was the subject on an article on December 11, 2015 in the New York Times by Jesse McKinley with the titleDevelopment Money, in Cuomo Era, Is Disbursed With Dazzle.” In the article, the competition among the regions for funding by the regions was compared to the competition to live among the regions in the movie “The Hunger Games.”

In January, Mr. Cuomo added a wrinkle to the format, dangling over the seven upstate regions an additional $1.5 billion in funding, to be disbursed over five years. The catch: Only three regions would win, each getting $500 million. (Three regions, including New York City, were not eligible.)

The plan drew quick and snarky comparisons to “The Hunger Games,” the dystopian thriller in which different regions submit their best and brightest progeny to the Capitol, culminating with the victors’ being celebrated by a television host.

The comparison was apt enough to inspire numerous Twitter posts with the hashtag #nyhungergames, as well as doctored images of Mr. Cuomo as a stand-in for President Snow, the villain of “The Hunger Games.” Such critiques were circulated by groups like Reclaim New York, which criticized the plan on Thursday as a “game-show approach to economic development” and “a disturbing and offensive example of government propaganda.”

Far be it from me to compare Albany to Hollywood. Wait a minute, considering the sex scandals may be the comparison isn’t so far-fetched.

The topic was the subject of a more recent article on June 7th of this year apparently by Gannett but appearing in a number of publications:

Transparency, accountability at issue in handling billions of taxpayer dollars

New York’s 10 regional councils have designated more than $4.4 billion to 5,300 projects since they were launched in 2011. But the money is largely void of benchmarks and job-creation goals, limiting the public’s ability to objectively determine whether the dollars have been well spent, a review of data and documents by the USA Today Network in New York found.

Are the taxpayers of New York getting their bang for their buck? As one investigates the process, one observes how irrelevant the history community is to it.

Critics say the process lacks openness and is ripe for conflicts because top leaders in the region often sit on the boards where grants can go to their own entities. That criticism has grown in the state Legislature, where lawmakers this year are proposing to tighten oversight of the boards and create new standards under which they operate. “We are talking about transparency. We are talking about accountability. And at the moment, we have neither,” Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti, D-Mount Pleasant, Westchester County, said.

The awards are commonly referred to as the “Hunger Games” because they pit each region of New York against one another for a pot of roughly $750 million a year.

Sometimes people are under the misperception that the REDC funding represents new funding be provided through the leadership of our Cuomo. That is only partially true.

Each year, the councils award about $750 million in aid to the 10 councils. The majority — $530 million — is not new money, but the same state aid previously doled out by governors, state agencies and lawmakers. The other $220 million is the “new money” each year allocated through Empire State Development, the state’s economic-development arm.

What’s changed is not the allocation of funds by NYSCA and NYSOPRHP to the history community but the format through which one applies for the funds. As previously reported the New York State Museum has no funding pool and I LoveNY which does, doesn’t fund projects in the history community.

The problems identified in the 2017 article mirror those in 2015:

But there is no audit or independent evaluation of their effectiveness. And the state does not have a current accounting of jobs created or retained, nor of the money spent…. As part of this year’s state budget, Empire State Development was tasked with creating an annual, comprehensive economic-development report on the state’s 30-plus job-creation programs.

Better late than never.

USA Today Network decided to take matters into its own hands. It created its own database with help from the Buffalo-based Investigative Post, ProPublica and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The results should not be surprising to anyone with even a vague awareness of politics. Big rewards went to companies or colleges whose leaders sat on the very councils making decisions on the applications to be approved including Corning Enterprises, Binghamton University, the University of Rochester, Marist College and Stony Brook University. Corning, a recent host of both the APHNYS and MANY state conferences, with $40,000,000 was the recipient of the largest single award.

Some efforts are underway so revise the process. The Finger Lakes council revamped how it prioritizes projects. An evaluation team that reads and scores each application has been broadened to include greater geographic diversity. Ethics and conflict of interest guidelines now are being reviewed at the start of every meeting. And, beginning in May, those meetings are being video recorded and posted online. If the goal is to bring together the leaders of the community as Howard Zemsky, who heads Empire State Development, claims, will the inclusion also include the cultural heritage community and the place of non-recreational tourism?

The article concludes with a reference to tourism in my own region, the Mid-Hudson Valley. The article began with tourism in the Mid-Hudson Valley. Tourism does not mean river cruises although practically every major river in the world has river cruises and tourism began here with these cruises in the 1820s. Tourism does not mean the American Revolution although Washington spent more time in New York especially the Hudson Valley than in any other state during the war. Tourism does not mean the Dutch although there now are direct flights from Europe to Newburgh in the Hudson Valley. Tourism also does not mean immigrants, slavery or any of the other themes in the Path through History. Instead tourism means Legoland, the Rockland County reject now moving ahead in Orange County. And even assuming Legoland succeeds in drawing people from outside the region to Goshen, what else will the people do who have driven there? As even the representative Legoland said at the Tourism Advisory Council, now is the time to start planning. Is there are funding to do so?

Is there a place for the history community in the REDC funding process? So far the answer is “no.” And what about for non-tourism related projects like education, community and civics, or replacing a roof? Will anything change in the next funding cycle?

 

11 thoughts on “REDC: Funding “Hunger Games” Where History Is the Loser

  1. Hi Peter:

    As you are probably aware I have been the Executive Director of the Ontario County Historical Society for 23 years.

    I Have never seen as dire an outlook for public support of history and local history museums in all my years in NFP management.

    I enjoy your posts. They speak truth.

    “Legoland” one hit home.

    Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb lives just up the street from the Ontario County Historical Museum. I printed and send a hard copy of the Legoland article to him at his home.

    I suggested politely that he not forget the history community in his quest to become our next governor.

    Ed Varno

    1. I have been calling for advocacy by the history community including at the local level and not just in Albany. Would your Assemblyman be willing to meet with the Ontario County history community at your historical society to discuss the issues?

  2. The quote “In a democracy people get the leaders they deserve,” is especially fitting when it comes to our plight in New York state.
    Who are we kidding. A lot of what ails the public history community, at least from where it matters at the state level and local government levels, is not made better from disinterested and disengaged leadership. This is pretty apparent when you have a governor who would rather fly to Puerto Rico to score points for his political aspirations than visit his upstate counties. Or his establishment of a “slush fund” to mete out as a reward system for political loyalty. Or the lack of an effective state legislature. It doesn’t help that people’s eyeballs glaze over when it comes to discussions about our historical treasures and resources, which seems to fit in nicely with the apathy in general when it comes to state and local government matters. Even if we still had an independent news media that consistently upheld their professional journalistic responsibility as the “fourth estate” to inform and educate the citizenry, people have to care. Until New Yorkers awaken from their catatonic state, get informed, get involved, demand accountability and resources from their public officials and reject their “status quo” attitude that facilitates their glide from one election cycle to the next, it will only get worse.

  3. Thank you, Peter. Your articles are always insightful (and usually inciteful, too!). I appreciate the time and effort you put into your work.

    Larry Petry
    Pulaski Historical Society

  4. A heartfelt letter, that’s for sure.

    5 paragraphs from the end of Rosa’s letter, there is a parenthesis (Erica is). I have a hunch you should have edited out

    There must be a way for these small town historical societies to get funds.

    Sometimes I think funders have their own agenda, so the New York Historical Society and the Brooklyn Historical Society have reduced their local historical programs in favor of nationwide subjects of a politically correct nature. I think their attendance is up at these talks, however.

    Bringing in more people under the tent, and maybe then exposing them to either historical talks or at least the historical displays in the building.

    Your emails are amazing.

    Thank you again.

    Holly

    1. Thanks Holly. You have been a loyal and steadfast reader who actually takes advantage of the comment function.

      You raise an important point which I hope to address in a future post. Think of the New York Times. It is a local paper that sees its future in online subscriptions from a national and even international audience. Hence it doesn’t need to be quite as local as it once was in its coverage. So who picks up the slack? Local newspapers like local historical societies often have a tough time these days. On the other hand, we physically live locally, elect people locally, pay local taxes, and turn to local people in times of disasters. The Cuomo/Trump transactional approach shortchanges local historical societies by dismissing their civic role in promoting the health of the social fabric.

      Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas

      Peter

  5. I was just catching up with “promotional” emails, and ran across your email. I was baffled by the Legoland image at the top. Then I skimmed through the email to find out why. As an environmental planner (and a lifelong historian) who spent many months intensively studying this project and its environmental impact statement, I have an answer for the questions posed in your email. Don’t waste time on planning for Legoland tourists. Do work on planning for history-based tourists, but forget about anyone visiting Legoland. Legoland, just like the proposed casinos I also studied, are a completely self-contained tourist destination. Legoland will not only provide the attraction itself, but also onsite restaurants and lodging. People pay a daily rate, and plan on eeking out every minute at Legoland to get their money’s worth. ALL of these people will be attending Legoland with their kids, and are focused on nothing but letting their kids do nothing but experience the park. They will not be venturing anywhere else. They will possibly buy gas on their way to or from the park, but no other businesses or attractions will benefit. This is borne out by the Legoland in Winter Haven, Florida. In that case, no onsite lodging was provided, so nearby hotels did benefit. That is, until recently when Legoland Florida built their own onsite hotel. Even when visitors had to use offsite hotels, the boost to surrounding businesses was nonexistent. Highways approaching the theme park were and still are lined with empty commercial buildings, and Winter Haven itself is full of empty storefronts. The pitch given by the Legoland PR office is nothing but a scam to get their project approved. If anything, the impact on nearby businesses and attractions will be negative, as Legoland traffic will clog Route 17, impeding access to other places. The Hudson Valley is a fantastic place to promote history-based tourism. We have a treasure trove. I do believe it can be promoted more than it currently is. But doing so in conjunction with Legoland is a waste of time and resources.

    Steve Gross
    Principal
    Hudson Highlands Environmental Consulting
    HudsonHighlandsEnviro.com

    1. I am glad you read the post but I do not consider my posts “promotional” except on behalf of state and local history.

      I suspect you are right in your analysis. My impression is Legoland will be a one-destination excursion for non-locals and not combined with historic sites in the region (except maybe for West Point). I am following with great interest the fate of the upstate casinos that were going to revitalize the various regions with another one coming in Sullivan County further north on Route 17. For all we know Legoland will do better to offer a joint program with the casino including shuttle service – something for the kids and something for the adults each as cocoon destinations.

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