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Buffalo, you are not alone

Some news from elsewhere. And why it sounds familiar:

- Pavement to Parks Allison Arieff/The New York Times
   Last Friday, cities and towns throughout the world celebrated Park(ing) Day, an event created to bring awareness to the importance of using and enjoying public space.

- Why not turn vacant lots into gardens? Donn Esmonde/The Buffalo News
   Buffalo’s full-bore demolition policy has left in its wake thousands of vacant lots. Next to many of them are homeowners like [Roxanne] Chase, who would gladly turn an eyesore into a lawn for kids to play on or a garden to brighten the street.

- Jail conditions violate rights of prisoners, feds say Laura Maggi/The New Orleans Times-Picayune
   Conditions at the Orleans Parish jail "violate the constitutional rights of inmates," according to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice released Tuesday that focused on inmate safety and mental health care....
   Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who runs the jail, lambasted the report, saying it doesn't reflect the current reality at the complex or take into account difficulties his agency has faced since Hurricane Katrina. "This report is a terribly dated, fundamentally flawed work done by people who obviously have little appreciation of the tasks facing a city in recovery from the greatest national disaster in this country's history," Gusman said in a statement.

- State sues county over jail conditions Matthew Spina/The Buffalo News
   The State Commission of Correction charged in a lawsuit Tuesday that the Erie County Holding Center consistently violates state standards and that jail managers have failed to correct the problems, despite their claims. ...
   "This lawsuit is a blatant political attack in an election year to cast negative aspersions on the good work done by the men and women of the Sheriff’s Office,” said [Sheriff Timothy] Howard, the Republican incumbent.

-- George Pyle/The Buffalo News 

Yahoo! It's a lock for Lockport (we hope)

   Although one suspects this may not be the answer for our host of unemployed autoworkers,
Yahoo! may create as many as 125 jobs, many of which are supposed to pay in the $50,000-a-year
range, at a new data center in Lockport.

   Town officials, wary of giving the big build-up to the project in a region that has seen
all too many bogus development schemes, and also compelled to clam up by a Yahoo!
confidentiality agreement, kept "Project Pilgrim" hush-hush for about three months. Thursday,
the digging of reporters, the need to schedule public meetings and the natural tendency of
politicians to self promote led to the lid coming off.

   The company won't say it has chosen Lockport, despite having submitted applications for
site plan approval and tax breaks. And town officials emphasized they have applications, not a
done deal.

   But in contrast to Lockport's Walmart project, which took more than three years of town red tape and a year and a half of litigation, the town seems prepared to whoop this one through in a few
weeks.

   For one thing, the site is in the town's own industrial park, which cuts down on the number
of potentially annoyed neighbors. For another, the town is scheduling special meetings of its
Planning Board and Industrial Development Agency instead of waiting for the usual date to roll
around on the calendar.

   It was the town's willingness to do this that played a key role in apparently winning the
project. The much-maligned New York Power Authority came up with 15 megawatts of almost-free
electricity for the power-sucking banks of computers that power the search engines and other
applications of Yahoo!

   And the cliche of having a "shovel-ready site" finally showed its usefulness, as a company
in a hurry met a town with a sizable piece of unpolluted vacant land well supplied with water
and sewer lines, roads and other utilities.

   It's nice to see that the planets might have finally aligned for a significant development.
Of course, all this seemed to have happened two years ago for a similar project, the HSBC data
center in Cambria.

   The field where that ballyhooed $1 billion project was supposed to have been built is now
on its way to producing what looks like a nice crop of wheat this planting season. But perhaps
the Town of Lockport and Yahoo! can grow some jobs to support local families.

      -- Thomas J. Prohaska

Crystal Beach, Miami of the North

When the Crystal Beach amusement park was closed in 1989, it was the end of an era for the Canadian resort community on the north shore of Lake Erie.

Now, two decades later, a developer wants to take Crystal beach in a new direction, one that includes high-rise residential living.  Beachfront condos are ubiquitous along prime oceanfront property in Florida, but for our little Great Lake, this would be something rather new.

Some American owners of vacation properties on the Canadian beach are among those opposed to this shift in atmosphere and have drawn their own line in the sand.

Everyone with an interest in Crystal Beach would like to keep the community vibrant and viable. The question is, what is the best way to achieve that goal.

Getting tough on Empire Zone companies

  
   In December, Gov. David A. Paterson proposed changes to the state's Empire Zone program that would have ousted 2,000 companies from New York's main economic development initiative.

   The theory was, besides saving the deficit-ridden budget some money, to end the deep tax breaks for companies that don't produce enough jobs or investment. In short, he wanted more bang for the buck.

   The Empire Zone program began earnestly enough: create in blighted sections of the state special areas where companies would locate and, in return, get tax breaks, such as credits for number of workers hired or relaxation of sales taxes on equipment purchases.

   But then, like other state efforts, every corner of the state wanted a piece of the action -- including communities that could hardly be described as home to any blight. The benefits expanded and the costs soared. Meanwhile, some companies were getting tax breaks for jobs they would have created without the help from Albany. And others came far short of their job-creation promises.

   Now, the fight is coming to a head. Letters have streamed out across the state from Albany informing more than 1,600 companies that the benefits they have enjoyed for years could be about to evaporate.

   Critics of the new approach say Albany is unfairly changing the rules for companies in the middle of the game. Lost jobs will be the result.

   But critics of Empire Zones say they have enjoyed the largesse of corporate welfare without proper oversight for too long, and that an effort will now be launched in the next year to create and retain the kinds of jobs New York needs to grow its economy.

   -- Tom Precious

East Side project stymied by banking crunch

   When plans for the Crescent Village project were first made public in 2007, it sounded like just what was needed for an East Side neighborhood that has too many vacant and dilapidated houses.

   Officials of the Lt. Col. Matthew Urban Human Services Center would eventually like to tear down all the problem houses and replace them with hundreds of new, government-subsidized homes for working low-income families.

   Everything seemed on track last May, with federal, state and city funding partners all lined up to help. The first step of the $5 million project called for building 10 new homes on Sweet Avenue.

   But then, the banking industry was hit by a disastrous financial crisis, and banks from Buffalo to Butte, Mont. were called upon to take a much closer look at where they were lending money, and to whom.

   The Crescent Village project has been stopped dead in its tracks ever since. Officials of the Urban Center say they had a verbal commitment from M&T Bank on the lending rates for home buyers, and they claim M&T made the terms much tougher after the lending crisis hit.

   That's not exactly true, according to M&T officials. They say they have been negotiating back and forth with the Urban Center for months, trying to reach a reasonable lending agreement.

   M&T says it wants to lend money to help neighborhoods in need, but also to do it in a responsible way.

   The bottom line is this -- no new homes are going up on Sweet Avenue, but Urban Center officials still hope to find a lender.

   Can we afford to build projects like Crescent Village in a financial atmosphere where the public is now closely watching banks to see if they are lending responsibly?

   Or can we afford not to build projects like Crescent Village in a community that badly needs new housing stock and the pride that goes with home ownership?

   Tough questions for our times.

   -- Dan Herbeck

Read the full story.

 

Albany helps Abu Dhabi firm set up shop

      Times are tough for New York. The financial crisis hitting the nation is having a disproportionate impact on the state, which gets 20 percent of its tax revenues from Wall Street activities.

   But the Paterson administration Tuesday announced it is going ahead with a controversial, $1.2 billion incentive package for a new computer chip manufacturing plant in Saratoga County -- one of the state's most economically healthy counties.

   A few things have changed since the deal was first hatched two governors ago -- in 2006 with then Gov. George E. Pataki. For starters, the state's budget is facing a worsening crisis, including a potential combined $10 billion deficit in the 2008 and 2009 budgets.

   And the major bankroller behind the plant has certainly changed. AMD, a California company, said Tuesday it is forming a new corporate structure -- with a new company, Foundry Co. -- to build the Saratoga plant. The majority owner of Foundry is a company owned solely by the Persian Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi, a state that defines "oil rich."

   Gov. David A. Paterson said the deal potentially will create a whole new high-tech industry for upstate, and reduce the state's reliance on shaky Wall Street revenues. And he said the state's embattled economy should be no excuse for not investing in an endeavor to bring new jobs to upstate.

   But there are questions. How will groups that rely on funding to provide everything from caring for Medicaid patients in nursing homes to college students who will see the impact of SUNY budget cuts feel about such a large incentive package to a wealthy Middle East-controlled company? What are the guarantees if the promised jobs aren't produced? And why couldn't the Paterson administration reopen talks about the incentives given the drastic change in the health of the state's finances from 2006 to 2008?

  -- Tom Precious

Canadian skyscraper a symbol of boomtown

   As you drive to the top of the South Grand Island bridge from the north, there are a couple of split seconds when you can see the Niagara Falls skyline in the rear view mirror and the Buffalo skyline out the front windshield, in about the 2 o'clock direction.

   For more than 35 years, the HSBC Center in Buffalo, at 38 stories high, was the tallest building you could see from the top of the bridge.

   Not anymore.

   It has been supplanted by a 58-story Hilton Hotel tower in Niagara Falls, Ont., 50 stories of which already have gone up on the growing Falls skyline.

   Most of the manmade gleam comes from the Canadian side, where a natural wonder and two provincially run gambling casinos have combined to push the hotel trade to unparalleled heights during the past dozen years.

   The American side of the Falls also has seen an uptick in the hotel trade, as demonstrated by the 26-story, three-year-old Seneca Niagara Casino hotel and several other projects.

   To be sure, there's still lots more work to do on the New York side of the Falls, though the Canadian side stands as a testament that a region can tie a big chunk of its economy to the tourism trade -- especially one that contains an international tourist destination.

   It's worth asking this question: are any planners and developers in Buffalo watching?

   -- Scott Scanlon

The Senecas' stunning decision to halt casino projects

   Maybe it's just a coincidence. Maybe not.

   One day after getting bad news in a federal court decision, the Seneca Nation's gambling corporation announced it is suspending $463 million in casino expansion projects in Buffalo and Salamanca.

   The Senecas are blaming the construction halt on "various factors, including challenging economic and capital market conditions." The statement  they issued this afternoon did not blame the halt on Tuesday's federal court decision from District Judge William M. Skretny.

   About 23 hours before today's announcement, Seneca Nation treasurer Kevin Seneca told reporters that construction on the casino projects was moving forward. He said the federal court battle was "frustrating." Seneca said the Buffalo casino would create at least 1,500 new jobs.

   Skretny's decision is viewed as a big win for Citizens For A Better Buffalo, the group that is leading the court fight against a Buffalo casino.

   The judge ruled that he still considers the Buffalo casino to be an illegal gambling operation, and he directed the National Indian Gaming Commission to move forward "forthwith" with enforcement actions. So far, the gaming commission has not indicated its plans.

   Some Western New Yorkers who enjoy casinos are angry at Citizens For A Better Buffalo and its main funder, the Wendt Foundation, for trying to stop Buffalo from getting a casino.

   "Most people I know want the casino, because of the jobs it is going to create, and because going to the casino would be a fun night out for people in downtown Buffalo," said Douglas Pagano, 53, a database technician from the Town of Tonawanda. "I think it's a small minority of people who are pushing this lawsuit. Why doesn't the Wendt Foundation spend the money it's spending on this lawsuit by helping Hunter's Hope or Studio Arena or some other worthy charity?"

   Richard Lippes, an attorney for Citizens For A Better Buffalo, has heard these criticisms before. Lippes said the anti-casino group is fighting the
casino because it believes the casino would hurt Buffalo more than it would help.

   "There's never been a vote taken on whether the public wants this casino," Lippes said.
"Anyone who says they know whether the public is in favor or not is just speculating."

   What speculations do you have on the future of Buffalo's casino?

   -- Dan Herbeck and Michael Beebe

   

Boondoggle at the BMHA

The problem with problems like leaky roofs is that, the longer they continue, the more problems they beget.
Bad roofs lead to water damage in ceilings and walls, expensive to repair even when it doesn't contribute to mold or pests. Gaping holes let heated air out and vermin in.

Some residents of Buffalo's public housing projects -- many of them elderly or disabled -- are living in these  conditions now.  Some are afraid to speak up, for fear of retribution by the property managers or others,  but almost anyone would agree that three years is too long to live with rain coming in your ceilings.

Not only does this indicate bad property management by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, it also is a waste of tax dollars. Any property owner knows that repairs never get smaller when they are delayed.

A new system for managing Buffalo's public housing is intended to decentralize  the process for maintaining the  developments, and the seven-member board of BMHA commissioners will for the first time tour all 27
of the agency's properties later this month.

It could be eye-opening. People living there also hope it will lead to action.


A new reason to be talkin' proud

   Jordan Levy wants to make Buffalonians proud again. Proud of where they're from. Proud of their history. Proud of where their community is headed.

   One of the ways he's trying to do that is by heading the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., the state agency overseeing the redevelopment of Buffalo's downtown inner harbor.

   The first real sign of the agency's work, the Erie Canal Harbor, will make its official debut today.

   So far, the reviews -- except for a minor encounter with sewage -- are positive. Even true cynics seem impressed by what's been done so far.

   Is it enough to make you a believer, or are you still one of those naysayers demanding to see more?

   -- Phil Fairbanks

   

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