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Waterfront Project Hearing Turns Tense
The Buffalo News
T.J. Pignataro

July 13, 2010
View the Original Article

An hour delay and an oppressively stuffy Buffalo Common Council chamber Tuesday evening heated up an already-spirited public debate over how the city should proceed on its massive Canal Side development at Buffalo's Inner Harbor.

The public hearing called by the city was designed to generate discussion between community organizations and the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., the state agency overseeing waterfront development, in hopes of forging a Community Benefits Agreement for the Canal Side project that still plans on Bass Pro as its anchor tenant.

By all accounts, there's still a ways to go.

The hearing, which included speakers ranging from a gubernatorial hopeful and city business leaders to a college economics professor and community activists, was filled with buzzwords like "corporate welfare," "living wage," "Buffalo's economic future" and "socialism."

It was was held only hours after an agreement was inked between the New York Power Authority and Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. allowing $105 million in bonds to be issued to pay for the project.

"The community needs to benefit from this large public expenditure," said Michael J. LoCurto, Delaware District Common Council member and chairman of the Council's Community Development Committee, explaining the city won't transfer 13 acres of land it owns without a Community Benefits Agreement, which would mandate above-minimum-wage jobs for workers at Canal Side businesses.

"I don't think the sides are that far apart, which makes the fact that they don't meet frustrating," LoCurto said.

Larry Quinn, vice chairman of the harbor development agency and minority owner of the Buffalo Sabres, said he understands many of Tuesday's speakers have "the best intentions" for Buffalo but added afterward that the hearing also was packed with "rhetoric."

"Those who said, "You don't just do a project to do it,' I agree with that," Quinn said. "You have to get it right."

"Getting it right," Quinn insists, among other things, includes Bass Pro.

"They're the best anchor out there," he said. "Ask anyone in the development industry, they'll tell you."

But, the project is far from only Bass Pro, Quinn cautioned. Canal Side also will include up to 20 other businesses, such as restaurants and retail establishments. While good paying jobs are part of the equation, Quinn said the Community Benefits Agreement would handcuff development at Canal Side.

The Canal Side Community Alliance, made up of more than 40 local organizations, is pushing for the Community Benefits Agreement to include quality jobs, environmentally sensitive designs, locally independent businesses and economic opportunity at Canal Side.

"A Community Benefits Agreement is a proven and sensible way to ensure that public dollars produce public goods," said Maxine Murphy, member of PUSH-Buffalo.

Susan M. Davis, a Buffalo resident and economics professor at Buffalo State College, said that given the extent taxpayer dollars are used to finance the project, the city should make sure that money goes to creating "living wage jobs" in Buffalo.

"I'm sure you notice the irony of business people asking for subsidies and then turning around and calling it "socialism,'" Davis said.

Davis directed her statements at Buffalo businessman and gubernatorial hopeful Carl Paladino, who, in a fiery speech moments before, used the word "socialism" in chastising those trying to hold the project up and constrain business development at the harbor.

"Our city has the renown to be the second poorest city in America, and we've worked very hard to be there," Paladino said. "This is going to be a million square feet of development. You can't tell them they can't be competitive. You have no right to do that.

"Let's start showing some respect for the people who want to take us out of the abyss."

Jordan Levy, the waterfront agency's chairman, earlier said he remained optimistic about negotiations with Bass Pro and expects the Springfield, Mo.-based company to sign a lease after years of negotiations, with construction on the store beginning in the fall.

But he said concerns about the Community Benefits Agreement promoted by several organizations and the Common Council, as well as a June 2 report critical of Bass Pro's economic development track record from the Buffalo-based Public Accountability Initiative, were making negotiations with the anchor tenant more difficult.

"The activity that's taking place in this community is, in fact, having a negative impact on those negotiations," Levy said. "We're hopeful we are going to bring them to conclusion, but if this community is saying we don't want Bass Pro, I'm not sure that even an act of Congress is going to get them to come here."

Among those outspoken against subsidizing Bass Pro's tenancy during Tuesday's hearing at City Hall was Timothy Tielman, the executive director of the Campaign for Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture.

Tielman called Bass Pro "a dicey proposition at best" that is neither "sustainable" nor fits in historically with the site for which it is proposed.

"We feel the great public investment that has been [granted] for this project — $150 million — should be spent intelligently and wisely," Tielman said. "Everything here has been done for Bass Pro."

"What's worse, getting Bass Pro or not getting Bass Pro?"

Meanwhile, Quinn said he expects the harbor agency to submit documents to the city as early as the end of the week to begin the process of transferring the 13-acre parcel for the development of Canal Side.