Skip to primary navigation Skip to main content

New boss at BERC

What to make of the appointment of Dennis Penman as the interim president of the embattled Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp.?

For starters, it buys Mayor Byron Brown a little bit of breathing room, at least with the downtown business crowd. Penman initially served on the board of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency as a representative of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, and I suspect that Partnership connection came into play with this BERC appointment.

Penman is a housing developer by trade, but he's no stranger to economic development agencies. He served as ECIDA chairman as Joel Giambra's choice to head the board the final two years of Giambra's term as county executive. Currently, Penman is vice chairman of the Buffalo Urban Development Corp., which operates under the umbrella of the ECIDA and appears, at least from a distance, to be one local development agency that's actually doing a decent job.

So far, so good.

He's also not regarded as a Brown guy. He's given the mayor's campaign only $1,000, and that was back in 2005. That almost makes him a virgin among developers who do business in the city.

Then again, he hasn't been doing any business in the city since Brown took office. His MJ Peterson was a favorite of Jimmy Griffin and Tony Masiello when they were running the show. Assisted by subsidies from the city, MJ Peterson built 800 to 900 houses and condo and apartment units with a value of upwards of $100 million. It built much of the housing you see scattered around the East Side.

Penman wasn't just a developer, but a real mover and shaker with City Hall back in the day. One housing veteran I spoke to Tuesday described him as "the ultimate insider."

Among other things, Penman helped the city secure $12.8 million federal funds back in late 1990s, and Masiello rewarded him by giving MJ Peterson a  big piece of the action to build housing in the Home Ownership Zone. The program, however, turned into such a mess that the feds eventually shut the program down for a year while the city got its act together. There was plenty of blame of pass around, involving both the city and developers, and the problems took some of the sheen off Penman and Company. Their subsequent construction of two houses on contaminated land at the Sycamore Village subdivision and a resulting squabble diminished their stature further.

Put another way, Penman comes to the BERC job with both credentials and baggage.

I spoke to him by phone Tuesday about his appointment as president of BERC, and he made these salient points:

While he's president, which, in the case of his predecessor, the deposed Brian Reilly, meant responsibility for overseeing the day-to-day operations, Penman said he expects to operate "more as a chairman of the board." He doesn't expect to be a daily presence around the office, which raises a question as to who is going to be watching the coop.

Penman doesn't view the appointment as long term -- "I don't want to make a career out of it, I'm in the development business, not government," he said -- but he's willing to stick around for a while, six months, maybe longer. His objective is to provide what he termed "transitional leadership," working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the consulting firm of Dennison and Associates to develop a turnaround plan for BERC. Penman said the emphasis will be importing best practices from economic development agencies around the nation and doing a better job of coordinating BERC's activities with other agencies, economic development and otherwise, both inside and outside City Hall.

While he wanted to stress what he sees as positives at BERC, starting with what he considers "a solid board" and a couple of bright young staffers, Penman gave the agency an overall grade of "somewhere below middle, a tad below mediocrity."

Give him a "B" for diplomacy.

Finally, I asked Penman about concerns about conflicts of interest, given all the business he's done in the city over the years.

"We haven't done any business in the city for four and a half years," he said.

If an opportunity to do business arises that posed a potential conflict, Penman said, "I would resign from this position."

So, there you have it. Suffice to say, a lot of folks, including those with subpoena powers, are going to be following what BERC does under Penman's watch.



City Hall | Economic Development
comments powered by Disqus