What happens when a Buffett buys your town?

Author Sean Cooper, in a lengthy article published in Tablet Magazine earlier this month, answers that question with: “Warren Buffett’s son Peter has dropped $160 million to date, and probably a lot more, to turn a county in upstate New York into his personal farm-to-table utopia, complete with its own radio station, music festival and currency.”

His “probably a lot more” suggests even Cooper has no real idea how much money Buffett, 63, has poured into Kingston and its environs over the last five years – primarily the former Gill Farm in Hurley and the former IBM (Tech City) in Lake Katrine. Or how it might be used or how long it will last. Add how the application process works and how projects are selected for funding, wrap it all in a tight cloak of secrecy steeped in radical progressive ideology and some people are beginning to ask questions.

“I’m a progressive, like Peter, and we agree on a lot of things, but I see a lack of transparency that needs to be addressed,” said alderwoman-at-large Andrea Shaut.

Mayor Steve Nobel, apparently has no such concerns. “I have had the opportunity to work with NoVo (Buffett’s foundation that funds these projects) and get to know Peter and NoVo staff for five years, and have seen firsthand that their intentions and values are aligned with our community,” he wrote in a recent email to this blog.

Nobel, who says he has had a five-year relationship with Buffett – apparently from the beginning of his two terms in 2016, – expects that NoVo will be active in this community for another decade. One can only imagine what the Buffett make-over of Kingston will look like by then.

Clearly, the mayor sees NoVo as a positive force in his city, even if some question the benefactor’s tactics.

In Nobel’s chicken-egg scenario, NoVo is merely supplying the wherewithal for plans and projects already enunciated in the city’s comprehensive plan. But, the comprehensive plan, for the most part an unfunded wish list, was drawn up following extensive public input and review by the common council.

Nobody elected Peter Buffett. NoVo is private enterprise which can spend its money – or not – any place on just about anything it wants. In effect, NoVo is the government, unelected, unaccountable and committed to reimagining Kingston to what end, who knows.

Money may not buy love, but it can buy freedom and choice. Any place could mean any other municipality in the Hudson Valley; criticism of NoVo or at least a provision for transparency, could send Buffett Bucks packing to the next town. They’re sure to get a warm welcome, as in Kingston.

In a way, the NoVo investment in Kingston/Hurley/Lake Katrine reflects the vast river of borrowed money flowing out of post-pandemic Washington. The difference is these are elected officials exercising their best judgment – with our money – on what’s best for their constituents.

That said, having a Daddy Warbucks – or Daddy Buffett – committing huge sums, to what author Cooper accurately describes as a hard-scrabble community, can’t be all bad. Like the alderman-at-large, I’d rather know just better know how the sausage is made.

In conclusion: What happens when somebody buys your town? You lose your voice, that’s what.

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MEDIA NOTES – My old boss at the Freeman and I used to lock horns over the use of unidentified “sources” in stories. He was strictly on the record. He even set a state senator straight on that subject during an editorial board meeting.

The senator, chairman of an important senate committee, had asked to “go on background” on a controversial subject, as they do in Albany. “Senator,” said the editor, “if you can’t say it on the record, don’t say it at all.” Hizzoner moved on to another subject.

Me, I find background most useful. Reporters learn things the subject might not reveal on the record and both sides know the reporter’s job is to get this in the paper. Background briefings can be abused, and often are, but it’s often a good place to start.

Which brings me to Cooper’s well-researched piece on Buffett and Kingston. I read it twice, once on-line and then in hard copy. It flowed nicely for 39 single-spaced pages while quoting what seemed like dozens of unidentified sources, many described as former NoVo staffers. Disclosure agreements? What are these people afraid of? Buffett himself was quoted directly from his numerous web postings and public statements, mostly about his philosophy. At the same time, the article quoted not a single elected official. Cooper would have found a fellow traveler in the city’s chief executive, as I did.

Channeling my former boss, when a writer quotes that many blind sources, almost all of them feeding into what seems a working narrative, I get suspicious. This isn’t journalism, it’s propaganda and it’s pretty obvious.

3 thoughts on “What happens when a Buffett buys your town?

  1. Totally agree– democracies demand our voice ( and our vote), private philanthropy at this level and without transparency is not good for democracy in the long run!

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