Could Buffalo Get Its Own Elevated Park?

From the Morning Memo:

Buffalo’s waterfront has seen a major a renaissance over the last decade, thanks in large part to significant state and federal investments.

However, a large structure still casts a shadow over the Canalside attractions downtown…literally.

As Gov. Andrew Cuomo summed it up: “The classic mistake was building a highway along the waterfront.”

Cuomo wants a plan for the city’s Skyway, and he wants it ASAP. The governor, during a stop in Buffalo yesterday, expanded on a national contest looking for new concepts for the elevated highway connecting I-190 and Route 5.

Cuomo said he wants the contest completed in the next six months. He also announced a panel to decide the winners, including Empire State Development President Howard Zemsky and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.

“I’m sure many of the ideas will say keep the skyway,” Cuomo said. “There are cities that have kept the skyway. Develop underneath the skyway. Develop other access. So, there is a very good possibility that the skyway may remain or be converted into an alternative use – like the High Line.”

The governor is not part of the panel, but sounded like he had his own vision for this project. He gushed about New York City’s High Line – a repurposed rail line that was turned into an elevated walkway and park.

“When I first heard of it, I thought it was almost implausible,” he said. “I could not have been more wrong. It has turned into a phenomenon of tourism activity.”

These kinds of parks may actually be becoming a trend in the state. Albany is in the process of finishing its own Skyway Park, repurposing an old I-787 ramp on the waterfront.

And the Walkway Over the Hudson, which repurposed an old train bridge across the Hudson River connecting Highland and Poughkeepsie, has proved enormously popular. At 1.28 miles from end to end, it’s the world’s longest elevated pedestrian bridge.

Mystery Check Sent To Erie County Clerk

From the Morning Memo:

A Buffalo Common Council member is trying to figure out why his long-time campaign treasurer wrote a large check to another local politician without his consent.

Democratic Councilman David Rivera said his staff notified him Tuesday, when new state campaign finance reports came out, that he had given $5,000 to Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns.

Rivera said that accounted for more than half of the total amount of money in his campaign account, and he doesn’t believe he has ever contributed more than $250 to a single individual – let alone written a 4-digit check.

Confused, he reached out to the bank and learned the check has been authorized by his treasurer of roughly a decade, Edwin Martinez. Rivera then reached out to Martinez, but has not been able to get in touch with him. He believes he’s out of the country, and so the mystery persists.

“To this day, I’d like to find him and talk to him about what was behind this,” Rivera said of Martinez.

Rivera was able to get in touch with Kearns, a former colleague on the Council as well as a former state assemblyman. The clerk said he knew nothing about the contribution. and refunded the full amount to Rivera yesterday.

The councilman said he has opened a new campaign account, and will send a letter today to the state Board of Elections asking that Martinez be replaced as treasurer. He said he is embarrassed and perplexed by the incident, and has asked the Erie County District Attorney’s office to open a formal investigation.

Kearns confirmed the details of Rivera’s story, noting the two are long time friends and he immediately returned the money when the matter was brought to his attention.

Assembly Economic Development Committee Chair Pushing For Reform

Western New York Legislator and Assembly Economic Development Committee Chairman Robin Schimminger, D, sees opportunity in yesterday’s Buffalo Billion bid-rigging convictions.

Schimminger said he agreed with the governor’s response that the state cannot tolerate anyone who tries to defraud the system but he believes that should be taken even further. He said the Legislature should not tolerate a system or person who enables a tainted system to exist.

Schimminger beat the drum last session for a number of measures to add transparency and oversight with regards to New York’s economic development polices. However, bills creating a searchable “database of deals” and giving the comptroller the power to assess state contracts before they were finalized, for instance, ultimately did not pass.

The Democrat said the trial and convictions ultimately could be the spark to push those measures through next session or sooner.

“There are already people who are saying that the Legislature should return to Albany to make these kinds of changes,” he said. “Certainly it has to make the likelihood of getting some change made, greater. It doesn’t lessen the likelihood.”

Schimminger, who has butted heads with the administration in the past, does not think the jury’s decisions will stop the Governor Andrew Cuomo’s aggressive economic development policies. He noted, not long after the defendants were indicted, the governor announced and began moving forward with a second phase of the Buffalo Billion.

The assemblyman said it will be up to legislators to make sure they’re enabling an atmosphere where more wrongdoing could take place.

“There’s a whole cast of characters beyond these who were part of this construct that, if you will, enabled this to happen, so that’s the next level of analysis which really has to be done here,” he said.

As for the projects, like the RiverBend manufacturing facility of which many of the allegations centered around, Schimminger said there will be a cloud over it but the businesses that have moved in since should be unaffected.

Panepinto Pleads Guilty To Attempting Cover-Up Following Unwanted Sexual Advances Toward Staffer

Former state Senator Marc Panepinto accepted a plea deal Thursday in federal court in Buffalo, admitting to attempting an illegal cover-up after making unwanted sexual advances toward a staff member.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Panepinto and a young woman from his district office had traveled to New York City together to attend a fundraiser for him on January 7, 2016. After suggesting the two count donations together in her hotel room, he is said to have made a “series of unwanted, verbal, and physical sexual advances which were rebuffed by the staff member,” leaving and returning again to her room in the early morning hours. After returning to Buffalo together, the staff member resigned from her position.
The prosecution said an investigation into the matter was referred to the New York state Joint Commission on Public Ethics. It said Panepinto was concerned the JCOPE investigation would jeopardize his 2016 campaign for re-election so he directed a senior staff member to “offer her money and/or new employment if she refused to participate” with it.

After the staff member did not agree to a follow-up meeting regarding the offer, Panepinto held a press conference on March 15, 2016 at his law office and announced he would not seek re-election. At the time he said there were several reasons for his sudden decision including the health of his since-deceased law partner and concerns about potential outside income restrictions with the Legislature, as well as an unspecified staff turnover in his office.

“While the defendant’s behavior in the hotel room was bad, his efforts to cover-up that behavior constituted a federal crime,” U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy said. “In behaving as he did, the defendant not only abused the trust of a young female staffer over whom he held a position of authority, but he also betrayed the trust of those he was elected to serve. Today’s plea makes clear that this Office will not allow elected officials who abuse their position for personal gain to escape justice.”

The charge carries a maximum penalty of up to one year in prison a $100,000 fine. JCOPE has not released a public report on the issue.

Prosecutors Drop Bribery Charges Against Buffalo Billion Developers

The federal government will not pursue bribery charges against two former top executives of Western New York development company LPCiminelli.

U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman wrote in a letter to the court, late last week, prosecutors will move forward with the remaining charges against Louis Ciminelli and Michael Laipple, including Wire Fraud and Wire Fraud Conspiracy. The executives and other defendant are accused of secretly rigging the bidding process for state contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, including the Tesla Gigafactory in South Buffalo.

Earlier this month, a third company executive, Kevin Schuler took a plea deal and is now expected to be a key witness in the June trial. An attorney for the remaining Ciminelli defendants believed the decision was a good result for his clients.

Other defendants in the trial include two Syracuse-are developers and for SUNY Polytechnic Institute CEO Alain Kaloyeros. Last month, former Cuomo administration aide Joe Percoco was convicted in a separate but connected corruption trial in front of the same judge.

Erie County: Proposed $500 M In Amazon Tax Breaks Seemed Reasonable

From the Morning Memo:

Alas, we’ll never know the controversy it could have become.

Imagine a scenario in which Buffalo won one the most competitive and largest development projects in the history of the country… then the project was submarined because the Industrial Development Agency wouldn’t approve the very tax breaks used to lure the company to Western New York.

Buffalo’s proposal did not survive the initial cut as Amazon searches for its second North American headquarters, despite including more than $500 million in taxpayer-funded incentives. That didn’t include what the state put on the table, which at this point remains confidential, but is safe to assume is a significant figure.

“If we didn’t make it to the next round, I can’t imagine, truthfully, what the rest of the communities in the United States are offering. They have to be astronomical amounts,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said.

Poloncarz pointed out, however, the company qualified for the incentives, given the scope of the project, under the IDA’s guidelines. The agency’s board had not voted to give final approval.

County leaders did not expect we would ever have that hypothetical controversy even if they were still in the running. The $500 million dollars in incentives would have come over 11 years but actually paid out over a 25 year period.

In essence, 50,000 new jobs would cost the county about $400 per job each year. County Legislator Joe Lorigo said it’s a reasonable price considering those new employees would be likely living and spending their money in the region.

“Really it’s immeasurable to say, to determine how big of an impact 50,000 new jobs would have on this area,” he said.

Invest Buffalo Niagara, the region’s economic arm, conceded the incentives for the project would have been unprecedented, but noted the project and the RFP process were unprecedented in their own right.

Amid Abuse Scandal, Buffalo Bishop Continues Look Back Period Opposition

From the Morning Memo:

Catholic leaders were in Albany earlier this week, lobbying the state Legislature against a provision in the proposed Child Victims Act that would allow a one-year window for sexual abuse victims to sue for damages.

Bishop Richard Malone of the Buffalo Diocese was among those who said he supports extending the statute of limitations – but not the look-back period.

“What do you do if someone who’s been dead 70 years has an allegation against him? How does that person defend himself? There are lots of reasons for that. We’re opposed to the ‘look back.’ We are very supportive of a Child Victims Act that would give victims more time that they can come forward to present their cases,” Malone said.”

Back in Buffalo, the bishop had more to answer for than just his lobbying effort. The diocese released a list of 42 accused priests while he was gone, though did not provide as much information on them as victims and their allies would like.

“My job is to bring things out of the darkness and into the light,” said Malone. “Primarily so we can offer healing, mercy and justice to victims, and, in the process, heal the church because something like this obviously mars the integrity of the church.”

The bishop said he is continuing to investigate reported cases of abuse, and might be willing to release the number of victims associated with each of those priests, but stressed the need to proceed carefully and meticulously.

Apple RFP Process More Traditional Than Amazon

From the Morning Memo:

As Amazon considers its top 20 proposals for its second North American headquarters without any upstate regions in the running, the next giant on the economic development horizon is Apple.

The tech company announced earlier this week it is searching for a home for its new corporate campus as part of its plan to bring an estimated $245 billion dollars of business back to the United States.

While there are a lot of similarities in the Amazon and Apple projects, economic development officials in upstate say you’re likely to hear much less about Apple’s search moving forward.

“We’re constantly talking but one of the things we do and I really respect that with what GRE (Greater Rochester Enterprise) has done is we don’t often publicize our submissions. Amazon was different. Amazon when they came out, they made their HQ2 very public,” Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bob Duffy said.

The main difference will be in the Request For Proposals, or RFP, process. What made Amazon’s search so unusual is that the company encouraged any community that fell within its specifications to submit a proposal.

Invest Buffalo Niagara President and CEO Tom Kucharski said it won’t work that way for Apple. Instead the company will take a more traditional approach.

“In most cases you’re sent an RFP which means that the company or their consultants have said, yeah, you know you’re on the list, and then it’s your responsibility as a community to try to stay on the list. So it’s not a process of inclusion. It’s a process of exclusion,” Kucharski said.

Invest Buffalo Niagara said it hasn’t received that request yet from Apple or its consultants, but Kucharski said the region does have a good relationship and has already been in touch with the company to see if needs match resources.

“Apple is a recent announcement,” he said. “We’ve worked with the company for years. We have an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) with them. I can only talk a little bit about that.”

Buffalo and Rochester submitted a joint bid to Amazon, and economic development officials indicated they plan to work together more in the future. It’s not clear whether that would be the case with Apple, however.

“There is nothing that we don’t go after when we hear about it and a lot of things that we don’t hear about, we find out through some back channels,” Duffy said.

Kucharski said even though the process is different, quite a bit of the research and ideas they gathered for the Amazon bid would be applicable to Apple too.

Budget Proposal Would Keep The Bills In Buffalo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $168 billion budget includes re-appropriated funding to keep the state’s sole professional football in Buffalo.

The budget would spend $2.3 million for “services and expenses related to the retention of professional football in Western New York.”

That’s the Bills, the team that made the playoffs for the first time this season since the end of the last century and are remaining in western New York.

The state through Cuomo has poured millions into western New York economic development and has spent millions to keep the team at its current address in Orchard Park.

Cuomo in his State of the State address last month gave a shout-out to the Bills: “We ended the drought in Buffalo, returning to the playoffs for the first time since 1999, ‘Go Bills! Go Bills! Go Bills!’

DOT Pumps Brakes On Buffalo Expressway Project

From the Morning Memo:

State legislators in Western New York are celebrating the state Department of Transportation’s decision to halt a major infrastructure project in the region.

The DOT said it is hitting the “reset button” on plans to transform Route 198 in Buffalo, also known as the Scajaquada Expressway.

“I believe the DOT needs to design a reconstruction plan that has broader community support before proceeding with a project that will spend over $100 million in taxpayer funds,” state Sen. Chris Jacobs, a Buffalo Republican, said.

The $115 million reconstruction called for speed reducing and aesthetic improvements to the corridor, which runs through Buffalo’s well-known Delaware Park, including landscaping, new signals at intersections and other accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Many members of the public though, said they felt the DOT was ignoring their input, and basing its plan too much on traffic flow.

DOT spokesperson Susan Surdej said it is a bit unusual for the state to halt a project of this magnitude so late in the process, but it is also proof public comments are important.

“After an extensive effort to create a plan that transforms the Scajaquada Corridor, unfortunately, a consensus could not be reached with the many stakeholders involved,” she said.

“More than two-thirds of the most recent public comments received by NYSDOT were not in favor of the proposed Scajaquada Corridor project moving forward. As a result, NYSDOT will rescind work on the Environmental Impact Statement and not move forward with the project in its current form.”

Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat noted the funding will remain in place and the state plans to form a task force to guide the new process. He said DOT will move forward with traffic calming measures in the meantime.

“I am pleased that the DOT has listened to the community, and has stepped back from their current plan,” the assemblyman said. “We need a plan for the redesign of the Scajaquada Expressway that takes a holistic approach to the entire corridor, reconnects neighborhoods, and restores Delaware Park. With today’s announcement, these critical aspects can finally be addressed.”

The state noted a number of safety measures, including reducing the speed limit, were already put in place in 2015, shortly after a car hit and killed a child in the park.