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News briefs 8.20.03

The power of sauce, hope, and Motown

"Where is my Temptations tape?" asks Betty Smith. "I can't do anything without it." Someone gets the Motown playing for her, and Smith looks more relaxed. It's a day when the soundtrack should be just right: It is the first production run for Miss Betty's Down Home Sauce.

            "It's not easy coming from where I've been and feeling proud of myself," she says. Five years ago Smith's heart conditions were making it impossible for her to work at her factory job, but she was judged ineligible to receive disability. The rent was backing up and she couldn't afford her medication. She survived an abusive marriage, a series of minimum-wage jobs, alcohol addiction, and a heart attack to be standing in a kitchen, laughing over enormous quantities of garlic.

            "Everything happened to me short of getting in the casket and dying," Smith says.

            One thing she didn't do is give up on food. She has made her own barbecue sauce since she developed a recipe growing up in Georgia. After years of giving the sauce away as presents and at her table, she was having a hard time keeping up with requests for more. And then people started offering her money for it.

            "All I know is I make a hell of a good sauce," she says, grinning wide. She sings along with the radio, hairnet and apron in place, assuring her helpers that she is indeed stirring the enormous pot of sauce simmering on the stove. She has a home in disability housing, her benefits have come in, she convinced a judge to draw her up a birth certificate, which she never had because the midwife "didn't count" her --- all of which adds up to a sense of security and optimism.

            Smith eagerly talks about the people who have helped her get from there to here. People she met at Dimitri House (an emergency shelter and food cupboard where she volunteers), her church, the Urban League, and people who read her story in City Newspaper ("Living on the edge," June 17, 1998) five years ago (like Mayor Bill Johnson, who helped her get into business classes), have all put their faith in Smith and her sauce. So far her volunteer business team has helped her write a business plan, secure a grant to get her sauce onto store shelves, and is helping her negotiate the paperwork for insurance and patents.

            Smith has 580 bottles ready to go, sealed and labeled with a picture of her beaming face and the words "It's Slammin'!" They will go onto the shelves of Hegedorn's Supermarket in Webster at the end of August. When she earns her first million, Smith says, the first thing she'll do is buy a house of her own, with plenty of room for her grandchildren to visit and a big kitchen.

--- Erica Curtis

IOLA hurdles

Will portions of the county's IOLA Campus be sold at a public auction? The County Legislature has put off voting on County Executive Jack Doyle's proposal to sell 28 acres of IOLA land until next month's meeting of the full legislature.

            The IOLA land, partially in the city and partially in Brighton near Westfall and East Henrietta Roads, has strong potential as an industrial/commercial site because of its proximity to major roads and highways.

            But nine of those 28 acres lie in the Town of Brighton, and they're zoned for single-family residential use. A 2001 update to the town's Comprehensive Plan calls for low-density office development on the site but excludes medical office use. Any changes to the current zoning for the parcel would require a public hearing.

            "It's important for the county legislature to be aware of the type of use that the Brighton community envisions for that land," says Brighton Town Supervisor Sandy Frankel.

            The county had stipulated a 180-day time limit for buyers of IOLA land to gain town or city approval. But Frankel calls that time frame "unrealistic." "Especially considering the fact that environmental reviews of any proposal may take longer than that. Certainly rezoning for a new use would take longer than that."

            Frankel also mentions some state-level action that could have an impact on an IOLA sale. The recent study by the state Department of Transportation marks the section of Westfall near Clinton as a traffic "hot spot" with high congestion and a high rate of accidents.

            "The state has recognized the need to make improvements in that area," Frankel says. "So any purchaser of land in that area needs to be mindful of the plans moving forward at the state level, as well as the traffic constraints on Westfall Road."

Amo update

In our recent cover story on Congressman Amo Houghton ("Chasing Amo," August 5) Brighton Town Supervisor Sandy Frankel said she was concerned about the lack of contact Houghton has had with his Brighton constituents. To address that concern, she was in the process of setting up a town meeting at which Brightonians would have an opportunity to meet their new congressman.

            Shortly after the piece published, Frankel phoned in an update: While she wasn't able to arrange a town meeting, Frankel did meet with Houghton recently at Brighton Town Hall.

            "We talked about Brighton, so he could learn more about our community and his constituents," Frankel says. "We talked about pending legislation on pension-fund solvency, venture capital for start-up companies in our community, federal funding for upgrading public safety communication systems, and support for parks."

            "I was pleased with his interest and his willingness to meet with me and learn about some of the issues that are important to our community," she says. "And it was clear that partisan politics were not a barrier to serving our constituents." (Frankel is a Democrat while Houghton is a moderate Republican.)

            While no immediate plans have been made for future meetings, Frankel says she expects "our staffs will be talking and hopefully this will be the beginning of a positive and very good working relationship."

As on a darkling plain

Where were you when the lights went out?

            Okay, the Latest Greatest Northeast Blackout began in the middle of a sunny day, and natural light therefore got a chance to shine --- a free ad for solar energy. But energy policymakers are looking mostly at traditional energy sources and fixes.

            At the top of the pyramid, the Bush administration is committed to building "more transmission" (Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's phrase) to prevent bottlenecks. Others, like Bill Clinton's energy secretary Bill Richardson, charge the US has a "Third World grid" and are pushing for comprehensive upgrades. Congress is haggling over stalled energy legislation, almost all of which is irrelevant here. And in New York State, talk has surfaced of the supposed need to build more electric plants to meet a coming shortfall --- though the blackout apparently was not caused by lack of generating capacity. Throughout runs the assumption that ratepayers (and not shareholders) will have to foot the bill for upgrades or new construction.

            What are Rochester-area stakeholders thinking about as the blackout recedes into memory (and maybe folklore)?

            "I think the most important thing is to figure out what went wrong, to collect the data and analyze it and use the experts' findings, says Rochester Gas and Electric spokesperson Dick Marion. Does the transmission system really need the overhaul people are suggesting? "For the most part, 99.9 percent of the time, it works just fine," he says. And what about alternatives "off grid"? "Utilities continue to look for innovative ways" to improve their services, he says, adding that RG&E plans to launch a new renewables program this fall, called "Catch the Wind." (Program details aren't yet available.)

            Environmental groups are calling for innovations, too. "Conservation is the solution, obviously --- conservation and efficiency first," says Eric Smith, chair of the local Sierra Club chapter's Energy Committee. The chapter is embarking on a project to address the relevant issues, says Smith, an engineer whose day job entails working with transmission facilities. (A national Sierra Club news release calls for lightening the load on the grid through conservation and the creation of "decentralized, homegrown alternatives" like solar and wind, as well as installing new high-tech lines that can carry up to three times as much electricity as those in operation now.)

            Steve Clemmer, a Massachusetts-based energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, has some thoughts about what a locality like Rochester can do for itself. We could install more "modular" sources of power "located closer to where customers are using it," he says. "If there were a solar panel on your house or a windmill in your neighborhood, it's more likely that your power will stay on," he says.

            "The response in Congress is moving us in the wrong direction," says Clemmer. He points a finger at deregulated electricity markets, too. Deregulation has increased "bulk" deliveries of power over great distances, he says. "But our transmission system hasn't changed along with this."