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A job half-done on Jefferson Avenue

I don't necessarily have a problem with the city's putting nearly $1.3 million in grant money into a six-block stretch of Jefferson Avenue, as documented by my colleague Pat Lakamp.

No, here's my problem.

See this building?

IMG_0224

It's on the northwest corner of Jefferson and Woodlawn avenues, right smack in the stretch that the city has poured grant money into. The building houses Project Head Start, and was constructed by the Bethel Community Development Corp. with the help of city loans. Head Start is a good program and the building looks fine.

So what's the problem?

Look across the street.

IMG_0219

Ugh. It's vacant. Looks like is has been that way for a while, judging by the broken windows, peeling paint and weeds coming through the sidewalk.

The city has taken the revolving door of owners to Housing Court nine times in the last seven years. The current case involves 14 violations and the law department has been asked to draft a demolition order. Meanwhile, the building owner is a year late paying the property taxes.

And therein lies the problem.

The city sinks nearly $1.3 million of grants into Jefferson Avenue and loans more than a half-million-dollars to neighborhood businesses and development corporations. And stops there.

No successful code enforcement of other buildings along Jefferson, not if the history of 1423 Jefferson is any indicator.

Ditto for houses in the surrounding neighborhood.

Housing rehab?

Not judging by the looks of nearby side streets.

A concerted effort to help businesses grow?

Not by the numerous failures and continuing struggles.

Enhanced policing?

Not by my reading of crime reports at Police HQ.

It's so typical of the city. Throw a lot of money at one part of a larger problem and ignore the rest of it. Show up for the photo op, and then move on.

This is an especially unwise use of federal and state aid, given the city's desperate poverty and limited resources to deal with it.

If I'm doing business along some of the other commercial strips in the city that are designated for the same program that has underwritten the grants on Jefferson, I might be peeved.

Why 50,000 roof jobs?

Why $150,000 in grants to a restaurant with a history of being a tax deadbeat?

Why more than a quarter million dollars in grants for barbershops and beauty salons?

Why were businesses along Jefferson the only ones not required to find matching money for the city grants they received?

All legitimate questions.

But let's stick with the assumption that Jefferson, between East Ferry and Landon streets, is a legitimate stretch of real estate to sink the money into. Or, shall I say, continue to sink money into. The city, dating back to Tony Masiello's tenure as mayor, has built a fire house and a public library and converted the Apollo Theater into a media center.

Have taxpayers gotten a fair return for their investment?

Those Masiello-era projects have certainly helped and the $1.3 million in grants to business were supposed to build off them, especially when it came to curb appeal.

How is the street looking? Does it scream -- or at least whisper -- million dollar upgrade?

Pat and I walked the street one day recently. It still looks pretty beat. Lots of vacant lots. Some buildings look pretty good. Others don't. Then there's the eyesore at 1423.

I realize it's going to take more than $1.3 million in grants to help bring back Jefferson Avenue and its surrounding neighborhoods. But sinking that money into the commercial district absent a larger plan undermines that investment.

As Craig D. Rogers, an associate professor of economics and finance at Canisius College, said:

"These grants, individually, will not have an impact on Jefferson Avenue, or any targeted business area for that matter, without these programs being tied to a larger, broader, more comprehensive economic development plan."

Moral of the story: If you're going to "do" Jefferson -- or any other commercial strip in the city -- do it right.

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Diminishing returns at Bank of City Hall

The investigation Pat Lakamp and I have in Sunday's paper should not invoke nostalgia for the economic development practices of Tony Masiello and Jimmy Griffin. Read this and weep -- or at least shudder.

Give Griffin and Masiello credit for swinging for the fences, and leaving behind something tangible in terms of physical projects, such as a restored Theater District.

Theater districtBut keep in mind the huge price the city paid, and continues to pay, because borrowers defaulted on 22 cents of every dollar the city lent -- more than double the national average for government economic development lending. Much of the borrowing involved loans the city has been required to repay  the federal government out of its annual anti-poverty allocation.

This year, the city will fork over $2.9 million in block grant funds to Uncle Sam, almost double what the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. will lend this year.

So, the Good Old Days were not so good, unless you were a bill collector working for the city, and to some degree, we've traded in one set of problems for another under Mayor Byron Brown. Not that there's not overlap.

To use a baseball analogy, while Griffin and Masiello swung for the fences and often struck out, Brown is playing small ball. Really small ball.

As Sunday's main story details, lending under Brown has dropped by nearly half, compared with Masiello's last term, and job creation, not exactly great under Masiello, has also taken a big hit.

Empire grillIn addition, nearly half of the money BERC has lent has gone to restaurants, bars and stores -- retail typically delivers a low return for the economic development buck -- and one in three companies are behind in repaying their loans.

Folks, if the staff responsible for making loans at BERC worked for a bank, they'd be looking for a job. And the bank would be surviving off TARP funds.

But the problem doesn't start with the rank and file. No, as usual, it starts at the top.

As I detail in the companion story, Brown, who also serves as chairman of BERC, has been a no-show in more ways than one.

Brown has skipped more BERC meetings than he has attended and Deputy Mayor Steve Casey's chair was vacant almost all of the time before he finally just up and quit a year ago.

Brown also has been slow to fill key vacant jobs, and when the BERC has hired, the choices have often been less than inspiring.

Brian Reilly has proved more adept at getting taxpayer-supported health insurance for his girlfriend than he has at closing business deals for the city.

And how do you hire a chief lending officer who had never handled a commercial loan before?

Add to this a governing board that, depending on who you ask, was kept in the dark by staff or failed to ask questions.

The end result has been a rudderless organization lacking a game plan, something economic development agencies across the nation have found essential for success.

Think of it -- Buffalo is the nation's third poorest city and the agency charged with rebuilding its economy has been essentially sleepwalking its way through life.

It's not the least bit surprising, considering that Brown is in charge. His administration obsesses on politics, not policy, and tends to deal with the latter only reluctantly.

Penman Dennis Penman stepped in to head BERC on an interim basis back in August and he's made some headway. Having formerly chaired the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, he knows how things work outside City Hall and recognizes that BERC has serious shortcomings.

He's made some changes and reached out for advice on how to make more, but as I noted a few weeks back, he's turned mostly to former insiders, many of whom didn't exactly shine when they were calling the shots. Penman needs to widen the circle -- considerably. 

The Brown administration, meanwhile, made what has turned out to be a very good hire in bringing E.J. Walton on board as the agency's chief fiscal officer. He's sharp and brings a fresh perspective, having worked out of town in both banking and development.

But it's going to take more than E.J. Walton sweating the numbers and Dennis Penman picking brains to get BERC on track.

We're talking major overhaul -- policies, practices and personnel. As long as BERC dishes big bucks to bars and restaurants and keeps the likes of Joe Tomasulo on the payroll, any talk of reform is not going to be taken seriously.

Ultimately, rebuilding the city's economy is going to require more than just BERC running on all cylinders.

For starters, it would help if the region's plethora of economic development agencies got on the same page, or, even better yet, consolidated.

I mean, BERC alone is spending $1.2 million a year on payroll. I shudder to think what the collective price tag is to staff all the IDAs, Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the local operation of the Empire State Development Corp. 

Remind me what we're getting for our investment?

Oh yeah, the nation's third poorest city, a region sinking under that weight and dead-on-arrival wish lists.

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A two-candidate race in Ellicott?

While a dozen candidates have applied for Brian Davis' vacant seat on the Common Council, the competition is shaping up as a race between Curtis Haynes Jr., an associate professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, and the Rev. Darius Pridgen, pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church.

Why these two?

Well, Pridgen has a name, a constituency and a track record. Whether he has at least the tacit approval of Mayor Byron Brown depends on who you talk to.

And Haynes?

For starters, a set of credentials sorely lacking on the Council, as detailed by the Answer Lady.

Imagine having the Council member who represents downtown and the waterfront actually knowing something about economics?

Actually, imagine having anyone on the Council knowing anything about economics?

Actually, imagine having anyone in city government knowing anything about economics?

But let's not get too carried away by credentials. I mean, since when does competency matter in this town's political culture?

Nope, the reason I think Haynes has a real shot is because my sources tell me he is being backed by Arthur O. Eve Jr. and, by extension, Democratic Party headquarters.

Eve and Grassroots, the mayor's political organization, control most of the Democratic committee seats in the Ellicott district. Committeemen will recommend a successor to the Council, probably later this month, and usually their recommendation gets rubber-stamped.

The Council, however, intends on conducting its own interviews and making a decision  by the end of this month or early next. Whether it goes along with the recommendation of committeemen may very well depend on who is put forward. My sense is that Haynes, if he stands up to scrutiny, is more likely than Pridgen to gain approval, at least without much of a fight.

Keep in mind that five of the eight Council members who will choose a successor are not on friendly terms with Brown, and some of them are very hesitant about Pridgen because they believe, or strongly suspect, that he is in cahoots with Brown.

I don't know if they are or not. But I do know the mayor does neither himself, nor Pridgen, any favors in the credibility department when he says he is staying out of the race, and that if he does jump in later, it will be to exercise his rights as a citizen.

Please. This is a mayor who, for four year, has been politicking 24/7. Governing seems like an afterthought much of the time. All of a sudden, he is above the fray?

My gut tells me that Brown probably would prefer someone he could control, but may be supporting Pridgen in the belief he would be easier to deal with than the alternatives.

Pridgen could prove to be a double-edged sword. If he gets the job and forms an alliance with the mayor, he certainly would help hizzoner. But if he chose an independent course, he could be a real player in his own right, perhaps even a rival in time.

Let's face it, there's not much bench strength in the black political circles within city government. The two remaining black Council members, Damone Smith and Bonnie Russell, are smurfs, and that's saying a lot, given the make up of this Council.

Pridgen has the potential to alter that landscape, if he were to operate as his own man.

Haynes has that potential, as well, but for different reasons.

If he's half as smart as his credentials suggest, it shouldn't take him long to shine on the Council, which is a pretty lackluster group.

Moreover, if he gets in, the majority who selected him is going to be mindful of keeping him in the fold. That means he'll probably see some things swing his way more easily.

Haynes could also help alter the political landscape within the black community.

Until recently, Grassroots has pretty much held a stranglehold on elected offices, not just on the Council, but the county and state legislature, as well.

County Legislator Betty Jean Grant is no longer a happy camper, but she's the only one among Sen. Antoine Thompson, Assembly Member Crystal Peoples, County Legislature Chairperson In Waiting Barbara Miller-Williams and the aforementioned Smith and Russell who isn't still drinking the Kool Aid.

The black community is not a monolith, however, and there are folks - a lot of folks, actually - who would like to see a diffusion of power. The appointment of Haynes would be a step in that direction.

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Brown, Collins & Bruno: A three-ring circus

Let's catch up with what our fearless leaders are up to.

First up, Mayor Byron Brown, who has decided he wants to take back the parks, but is being coy about his intentions for the Olmsted system.

Brown and casey It seems strange, even by City Hall standards, that the mayor would want to mess with what appears to be the unqualified success of the Olmsted Conservancy.

But let's keep in mind the way his administration strung along most of the housing and human service agencies that depend on City Hall for funding.

Regardless of their performance, agency after agency waited months and months to get their contracts approved, and with it, the money necessary to operate.

Next, Erie County Executive Chris Collins, who, more and more, reminds me of a local version of Dubya. The imperial thing, ya' know?

Chris collinsFaced with $1 million in spending for culturals that Collins doesn't want, he says he will simply ignore the additional money by refusing to sign contracts with the groups for the amount of funding earmarked by the County Legislature. Rather, he'll stick to his original figure.

After all, give and take between the executive and legislative branches is for wusses.

Just ask Dubya.

But wait, there's one add-on Collins is going to honor - $300,000 for the Colored Musicians Club.

Why the exception?

Because it's supported by Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, silly. She's being courted to head a hybrid coalition of Republican and opportunistic Democratic legislators that would form a Collins-friendly majority - at least until the county executive blows it up by acting like, well, Chris Collins.

Keeping the $300,000 only underscores that this budget spat isn't really about principle, but politics.

Finally, we have Joe Bruno, who is poised to trade in one set of pinstripes for another, thanks to his conviction on corruption charges. 

Bruno It wasn't so long ago that Bruno, Eliot Spitzer, Alan Hevesi and Sheldon Silver were running state government.

Who wouda' thunk that Chris Collin's version of the Antichrist would be the last man standing?

I wonder who will be the next domino to fall?

As an aside, Pat Lakamp has a terrific package of stories in the paper the past couple of days on City Hall's management of its grants program. Suffice to say, it's a mess.

I also had a story on how Brown and Co. decided to reward one restaurant with more than $150,000 in grants despite its history of being a tax deadbeat. But hey, where else could you hope to find both warm food and hot parking permits.

Usually, I'd be all over the stories in this blog, but I'm going to hold my fire until this coming Sunday, when I expect we'll publish companion stories on BERC's lending practices. So, sit tight. I'll try to make it worth the wait.

As the Carpenters once sang, "We've Only Just Begun."

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Another wave of investigators visits City Hall

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the feds who investigate violations of the Hatch Act, are in town for three days, sniffing around City Hall.

The e-mails sent by Tanya Perrin-Johnson initially piqued their interest, You remember, the ones in which she, shall we say, "informed" her staff of "volunteer opportunities" working for Mayor Byron Brown's re-election campaign this summer.

Brazen and sloppy, to be sure.

Illegal?

That's what the feds are here to try and figure out.

Given that they're here for three days, I imagine the feds are looking into more than just those e-mails. As well they should, because when it comes to city employees being strong-armed to do political work, there's a lot to look into.

In fact, the feds may be well advised to get a room at one of those extended stay hotels.

I've got a hunch there are a lot of City Hall types who are anxious -- as in sweating bullets -- over the prospect of being questioned.

My guess is some of them will be doing a Ralph Kramden imitation when they start fielding questions.




Obviously, the mayor has the most to lose. But I doubt he's the main focus of the investigation.

Nope, because as anyone knows who is paying attention to how things work at City Hall, all roads lead to Steve Casey.

Hizzoner himself proclaimed the night he won the primary that Casey "is the best campaign strategist in the business and a very dear friend."

Strategist, friend and perhaps target.

A bigoted vote on gay marriage

A couple of things strike me about the State Senate's defeat of the gay marriage bill.

Maybe I'm missing something, but isn't it a rule of thumb in politics that you don't force a vote on something when you don't have the votes? The bill lost 38 to 24 -- not even close.

If the objective was to force senators to go on the record, or to simply fight the good fight, well, mission accomplished. But at a steep cost.

My second thought?

For years, my thinking on the issue has been kind of mainstream -- for moderates and liberals, anyway. Civil unions are fine, but marriage goes too far.

But, over time, I've read enough about the trials and tribulations of gay couples who don't enjoy the benefits of marriage that we heterosexuals do to change my mind. If marriage is good enough for us, it's good enough for them. Plus, it just seems fair.

I thus find the rejection of gay marriage to be first and foremost, an act of bigotry, pure and simple.

Consider the definition: "Stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one's own."

Yup, that's it, alright.

Those who oppose gay marriage think marriage is OK for people who look and act just like them. But not others.

Defending the institution? From what?

Commitment? Responsibility? A sense of family?

I can't help but note that the biggest hotbeds of opposition are located in "red country." This  eye-opening graphic shows red states -- more than blue states, home to we godless liberals -- are  populated by men and women who divorce, teenagers who have babies and people who subscribe to online porn sites. 

But remember, it's those gays that are immoral and need to be stopped from marrying. I mean, if they were allowed to marry, they might keep doing it again and again, like you know who.

If you look at the steady march of progress when it comes to equal rights -- for racial minorities, women and gays -- it's probably just a matter of time before gay marriage becomes the norm. That's little comfort for those on the outside looking in, however.

At the end of the day, it's about fairness, about tolerance. And tolerance is a good thing, A very good thing.

It's one of the things that separate us from the guys we're sending 30,000 more troops to fight over in Afghanistan.

Byron Brown, the photo op mayor

So I'm reading yesterday's paper and there's a picture of Mayor Byron Brown posing at a staged press event. Got me thinking that he's showing up for a lot of these photo opportunities, and got confirmation when I checked The News' photo archives.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let me present the evidence.

First, there's the aforementioned photo op at Concord Textile Care Products, part of an announcement of state funding.

Brown photo op 1 

Power Authority President Richard Kessel opened a satellite office near HSBC Arena on Nov. 9, and look who showed up but hizzoner himself. Perhaps Kessel explained to him why the Power Authority thinks it's better to continue providing dirt-cheap hydropower to faded industries rather than seeding businesses that  have growth in their future.

 Brown photo op 6

Next up, Brown front and center at a Nov. 7 parade  celebrating the success of 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." Gee, I wonder home much time he spent with a hammer in his hand earlier in the week when it was time for work rather than accolades?

Brown photo op 2

On Oct. 28, it was time to mug with city snow plows at the Broadway garage. Hey, smile, Mr. Mayor.

Brown photo op 3 
 
Brown shared a smile Sept. 24 with restaurateur, developer and Brian Davis buddy Mark Croce after the ground breaking for a new boutique hotel Croce is opening with city support. Croce, being no dummy, took care of business two weeks earlier by hosting Brown's victory party in the mayoral primary at one of his downtown restaurants.

Brown photo op 5

Brown invited artist Tony DeCorse and Gerald Mead, a commissioner with the Buffalo Arts Commission, and, photographers, of course, down to City Hall for a ceremony on Sept. 17.

Brown photo op 4

All this, mind you, is just since Labor Day, and just at the events The News showed up for.

This excludes the numerous photo ops staged on the campaign trail and pictures taken of Brown over the summer when he just so happened to show up at fire and crime scenes, knocking on doors and doing his best Joe Friday imitation, at least as long as the cameras were around.

If all this makes you wonder who is tending the store while the mayor conducts his endless campaign, well, have no fear. Anyone paying attention knows Steve Casey is the real power behind the throne. He's FIRST DEPUTY MAYOR! And don't you forget it.

Here's a shot, back in the day, of Casey with his one-time mentor and continuing conniver, Steve Pigeon. You know, the guy pulling down north of $130,000 - on our dime - working for Pedro Espada. Full time, of course. When he's not working for Tom Golisano. Or helping out the Brown campaign. Or attending to his private practice. Or politicking. I mean, he and Tommy Boy have got to reform state government, ya' know?

Casey and pigeon 

Hey, aren't photo albums fun?

 

Good Richie, Bad Richie

First, the Good Richie.

Richard Kessel, president of the New York Power Authority, was in town Tuesday to announce progress in his efforts to make Western New York a hub for wind energy. The authority is going to request proposals from developers to construct and operate one or more off-shore wind farms in Lakes Erie and/or Ontario.

Kessel 3That doesn't make the project a slam-dunk to happen, but it's a step forward, and if it happens, Western New York would be home to the first, or one of the first, off-shore wind projects in North America.

Western New York a leader. Now that would be a good thing.

Also good are provisions in the request for proposals that give bonus points to developers that would purchase goods and services from Western New York companies. That could help seed a wind-power industry here, drawing on the region's industrial capacity.

Then there's the Not So Good Richie.

You may recall that, back in April, when Congressman Brian Higgins called the authority out for continuing to pocket profits from the Niagara Power Project rather than sharing the wealth with the community from whence it came, Kessel surprised a lot of people by saying he was prepared to negotiate a deal to keep a significant share of the profits here to promote economic development.

Kessel said a deal would be reached over the summer.

There was no deal.

Kessel then said there would be a deal by the fall.

There was no deal.

Now, with Santa prepared to land in three weeks, Kessel said we'll see a deal no later than January.

We'll see.

Not only when, but how much, and for what.

In the meantime, tens of millions of dollars of profits that might otherwise be flowing to Western New York instead continue to make their way to NYPA headquarters in White Plains.

In other words, same old story.

Then there's Bad Richie.

You also may recall the investigation I did in 2007 that documented how NYPA is squandering much of the low-cost hydropower that is sold to local industries at a deep discount.

To refresh your memory:

Most of the power goes to a handful of companies that enjoy discounts that amount to some of the richest corporate subsidies in the nation, The News found.

Just two Niagara Falls chemical manufacturers -- Occidental and Olin -- get 29 percent of the low-cost industrial power earmarked for the region, although they employ only 1 percent of the workers of the 98 companies participating in the program. The discounted power last year saved Occidental and Olin an estimated $53 million, or an average of $126,155 per job.

And it doesn't stop there.

Dozens of other companies, The News found, receive subsidies considered excessive using benchmarks set by the federal government for several of its largest economic development programs.

Some of these industries have enjoyed generous subsidies for decades, thanks in part to what many say are outdated criteria that favor declining Cold War industries at the expense of new-economy enterprises.

Well, guess what, folks?

The contracts for most of this power are coming up on expiration, which could put it in play. But no. The Power Authority, under Kessel's leadership, plans on giving new contracts to most, if not all, of the current recipients.

"I expect most everybody will be re-upped," Kessel said Tuesday.

In other words, short of a rebellion, NYPA plans to continue to squander the most costly, and important, economic development tool this region has at its disposal. Better to prop up stagnant, sometimes dying industries, than to invest in the future.

This decision comes on the heels of NYPA's decision to give a big allocation of power to Yahoo! worth discounts of more than $800,000 per job.  A mind-boggling number -- wouldn't you say? -- for a project that likely will have little spin-off benefits, unless you include the photo op for politicians who flew in to attend the press conference called to formally announce the deal.

Yahoo! press conference

Folks, Richie Kessel has come to Western New York a lot more than his predecessors. He's slapped a lot of backs, said a lot of things we wanted to hear, even opened a satellite office of sorts in the Cobblestone District.

But the substance Kessel's actions isn't all that different from that of his predecessors. Not at least on the issues that are really important to this region. Nope, it's a continuation of the failed policies of the past.

Profits from the Niagara Power Project continue to flow to Albany, rather than into this community, and our share of the cheap power generated in Lewiston will continue to be used to prop up declining industries, some of which have been gorging at the public trough since JFK was president.

Yeah, Kessel's if-come wind project would be a good thing. But it doesn't make up for the continuation of policies that have hurt this region for a generation.

There's a better way, but Richie and Co. aren't interested.

As I reported two years ago:

“The potential of close to a quarter of a billion dollars of power a year is incredible. We’ve just been very short-sighted about the way we’ve looked at the potential,” said Sam Cole, a University at Buffalo professor who studied the impact of hydropower for the New York Power Authority.

“Given the political will, and efficient use of the power, practically every dream Western New Yorkers have for the recovery of the region could be fulfilled.”

Political will = efficient use of power = economic recovery?

Now that, folks, is a dream, unless and until people in this town wake up.

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Enter Pridgen

The Rev. Darius G. Pridgen has made it official -- he wants the Common Council seat Brian Davis has vacated.

He submitted his resume and a video to the Council on Monday. While a dozen or so wannabes have announced their interest in the Ellicott District seat, Pridgen's entry into the race is a head turner.

He's probably a front-runner, but by no means a lock. Uncertainty about his relationship with Mayor Byron Brown will prompt a lot of questions and contemplation among the Council majority, who is not on friendly terms with hizzoner.

Here's a link to Pridgen's Facebook wall and the cover letter that accompanied his resume submitted to the Council. Interesting that the letter doesn't mention his day job.

Pridgen and the other candidates will run a gantlet over the next several weeks.

First up are interviews with Democratic committeemen in the Ellicott District, which should happen in the next week or two. That will be followed shortly thereafter by a vote of committeemen, which will be forwarded to the Council, which has the final say.

The Council also will vet candidates, with interviews in the middle of the month and a decision expected by the end of December or early January.

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