State Panelists In Buffalo For Skyway Reimagining Competition

From the Morning Memo:

Submissions for a reimagined Buffalo Skyway are due on Friday.

The governor announced the “Aim For The Sky” competition earlier this year as the state looks to transform the elevated highway along Buffalo’s waterfront.

“Western New York has gotten such international attention – last year, the New York Times, Washington Post, the Times of London. (Monday), People Magazine identified Buffalo as one of the best things about the United States in 2019 and so this is a real opportune time to talk about what’s next,” Cuomo Senior Advisor John Maggiore said.

The panelist began arriving in Western New York this week. Maggiore said some of them, for instance Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, are already familiar with the city and the oft-criticized structure, but others are just getting acquainted.

He said a number of submissions have already been submitted, but was hesitant to give a number because he has not yet reviewed them and didn’t know how many are “serious.”

“I would imagine most of the serious submissions are going to come in at the wire. If I was working on one, which I’m not, I would take every moment that I can to put together a quality submission,” Maggiore said.

Governor Cuomo has demonstrated significant interest in the project, which will like cost a significant amount of public money. He even suggested during one trip to Buffalo, the Skyway could be an elevated park like the New York City highway.

Maggiore cautioned though, the governor wasn’t saying that has to be the idea.

“I was afraid that people would try to read between the lines,” he said. “That’s not intentional in any way. The intent of that was try to stimulate diverse thinking about what can be done but absolutely the governor doesn’t have a dog in the race about the final outcome.”

The state gave guidelines but in many ways was intentionally vague an attempt to bring in a variety of different ideas. The winners will be selected in September but Maggiore said before any shovels hit the ground there will have to be an environmental impact study which will take a few more years.


Senate Passes Legislation To Change Date Of Buffalo School Board Election

Update (3:56 p.m.) The Assembly has passed the amended bill.

The state Senate has passed legislation to move Buffalo Public School Board elections from May to November.

A coalition of parents, community leaders, clergy and business owners in the city have been pushing for the measure for years. They believe  holding the election on the same day as the general election will save the local board of elections money and increase what has historically been low voter turnout.

State Senate sponsor Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, said school board is perhaps the most important election for the community.

“The voter turnout in May has been abysmal, embarrassing. This year with unprecedented attention being paid to the Buffalo School Board, 16 people running for Buffalo School Board, at-large seats giving everybody a reason to come out to vote, 6.6 percent of the electorate decided to take part,” Kennedy said during his floor remarks. “That is unfortunate. That needs to change.”

The Assembly has already passed the measure but due to a technical amendment will need to vote again. Language was clarified to make clear current board members will be able to serve out their terms.

The Buffalo Teachers Federation and NYSUT opposed the bill, arguing it unfairly targets the city and that even though turnout is low in May, it is passionate and educated people who come out to vote. Both Syracuse and Rochester hold their elections in November.

If the Assembly does pass the bill again, the governor still needs to sign it.

43North Competition Launches Year 6

From the Morning Memo:

The sixth year of the state-sponsored 43North business competition is underway.

The competition is now accepting applications from start-ups across the world, which can win cash, incubator space, and support to grow their respective companies – provided they locate them largely in Buffalo, (more on this in a moment). Winners could receive as much as $1 million from a $5 million pot.

“Over the last five years, the 43North competition has successfully driven high-quality startups to Buffalo where they can grow their businesses,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. “Through this unique competition, we will continue to bring world-class talent and cutting edge businesses to this region to contribute and collaborate with the growing entrepreneurial economy.”

Winners are also allowed to operate tax-free for 10 years in the state under the Start-Up NY program. However, companies are only required to locate their CEO and half of their employees in Buffalo for a year, and the competition has faced criticism as some participants have decided to leave once that commitment was fulfilled.

The state said that over the first five years, the competition has created more than 400 jobs in Buffalo, and many companies have partnered with local institutions for continued growth. They also agree to give 43North a 5 percent equity stake.

“43North continues to be an important piece of the puzzle in attracting new businesses and talent to the region to help boost our local economy,” Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat said.

“The $5 million startup competition supported by the governor and Empire State Development has also been key to giving minority and women entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their ideas and get the critical funding they need to get their businesses off the ground. I can’t wait to hear what new and innovative businesses and talent this latest round will bring the region.”

The competition said 27 percent of its winners have had female founders, and 20 percent have been founders of color. Startups have until July 8 to submit their applications.

Buffalo Plans To Convert Street Lights To LED In Cost Saving Measure

From the Morning Memo:

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown presented his annual city budget yesterday, which included a creative cost-saving measure.

Brown said the city plans to purchase a new outdoor lighting system and convert all the bulbs to LEDs. Once the full conversion is done, he maintains, the city believes it will save roughly $1 million annually.

“That will have significant savings to the city’s overall budget due to the fact that we’ll be reducing energy and reducing the cost of energy that we have to pay for, and also reducing the costs that we currently pay to National Grid to maintain the system. We’ll be taking it on ourselves,” Buffalo Commissioner of Public Works Mike Finn said.

Finn said the new system costs less because LED bulbs require less maintenance. He said the bulbs can last for up to 25 years each.

First, however, Buffalo will have to buy the system from National Grid, which it believes will be done in the next several months. The conversion will happen over the next three years.

Buffalo had 32,000 outdoor lights. The vast majority are street lights, but it also includes fixtures in parks and parking lots.

Brown said the LED Conversion Program includes entering into a partnership with the New York Power Authority. Other places across the country, including New York City, have already begun LED conversion programs which also serve to reduce greenhouse gasses.

ECHDC Announces New ‘Buffalo Waterfront’ Brand

From the Morning Memo:

Frankly, it hasn’t always been clear what reporters should call the areas of Buffalo next to the bodies of water that separate the city from Canada.

I personally have used a variety of names over the years – from the waterfront, to the harbor, to the Aud Block. None of these titles are necessarily wrong, but they do invite confusion.

Over the last half a decade or so, as development has proliferated in the area, we seem to have settled on two names: Canalside, for the tourist spot next to the hockey arena, and the Outer Harbor, for the less developed area a short drive – and an even shorter kayak trip – away from Canalside.

Yesterday, the agency that runs the two locations announced a rebranding (of sorts). Both Canalside and the Outer Harbor will henceforth go by the umbrella name “Buffalo Waterfront.”

After a bit of confusion, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation explained that the old identities are not officially going away. It promised more information this week with the launch of a new website to accompany the rebranding effort.

“The new parent brand with a new waterfront website will serve as a single online stop that will better inform the public of Canalside and Outer Harbor events and activities, with a goal of drawing more tourism and awareness to Buffalo’s waterfront,” the agency said.

Why does this matter? Well, Canalside, with its summer concerts, ice skating in the winter, and other activities has turned out millions of visitors annually.
Perhaps, ECHDC wants to leverage that name brand as it attempts to boost tourism at the Outer Harbor, as well.

State and federal leaders have discussed how to best utilize the area for years.

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.