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Playing hardball on the waterfront

It's pretty clear that the nobody-elected-them crowd charged with developing Canal Side, a.k.a. Bass Pro,  has no intention of negotiating a community benefits agreement. They've been sounding that drum beat in the public utterances of Jordan Levy, chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., and through other assorted avenues.

What's got Levy and company all worked up is that the Common Council -- which, I will note, is elected by somebody -- going strongly on record in support of a community benefits agreement. To the point where it has said, "no CBA, no transfer of land to make portions of the project happen."

The coalition supporting the CBA is broad based -- a who's who of the region's progressive community. It reached out to the development corporation a week ago Friday asking for a commencement of negotiations.

A week and a half, Levy and company have yet to respond. Rather, they're doing all their communicating in the media. And the answer is a resounding NO.

Unfortunately, this is par for the course.

Keep in mind that Bass Pro was selected as the anchor tenant without benefit of any competition. Nope, the friendship between Florida neighbors and fishing buddies Bob Rich and Bass Pro CEO Johnny Morris was sufficient.

Benderson Properties -- a Buffalo-connected company that made much of its fortune and reputation by building strip malls, not entertainment/historic districts -- was selected as site developer by the ECHDC board, again with no competitive process.

The politically influential law firm of Phillips Lytle was selected to do a lot of the corporation's legal work, and EHCDC is now discussing leasing the old Donovan Building to the firm once millions of public dollars have been spent on rehabbing it.

This is the kind of conduct that gives authorities a bad name.

All this isn't to say Levy and company will get their way. If the Council hangs tough, they will have no choice but to come to the table. Not that it should all fall to the Council.

Rep. Brian Higgins is a player, as well. He was instrumental in establishing the development corporation in his early years in Congress. And last year, he made a deal with the New York Power Authority to accelerate payments to the project and add $50 million to the pot.

In short, Higgins is the agency's sugar daddy. He is in a position to tell Levy and Co. to knock it off and deal with the CBA advocates in good faith.

From where I sit, what Levy is doing involves needless risk for the project. The Partnership for the Public Good, the Coalition for Economic Justice and others pushing the CBA are the very people I'd expect to be flat-out opposed to this deal. Instead, they've proposed a process that would result in their endorsing it.

And the problem is?

I mean, Aaron Bartley and company are known to have organized a picket line or 20. 

PUSH Buffalo protest

I would think the last thing Levy or Higgins wants to see is people starting to organize in opposition to the use of more than $150 million in public funds to create mostly low-wage, part-time jobs. Which is one of several ways reasonable people can view the project.

Maybe Levy and company think the project is so well bankrolled -- with tax dollars, of course -- and deep enough into the public review process that they can afford to thumb their nose at CBA supporters or pick off enough Council members to get what they want.

Perhaps they are right. And perhaps they're not. I just do not understand why they're running that risk. I mean, is building to green standards and promoting locally owned businesses a bad thing?


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City Hall | Economic Development
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