The Erie Harbor Canal Development Corp. is charged with developing the inner-harbor, but Mayor Byron Brown is cool on the state agency also assuming responsibility for the outer harbor.

Byron Brown’s bridge over troubled water

The mayor's pitch to have City Hall develop Outer Harbor ignores his administration's economic development failures
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Momentum is building to do something with the Outer Harbor and just days after a group of  community activists called for developing its 120 acres into a park Mayor Byron Brown make a pitch for City Hall to play a role, perhaps a big one.

The Outer Harbor is state land, controlled by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. The NFTA wants to get out of the real estate business, which has begged the question, who would assume responsibility for developing the property?

Some think the task should fall to the Erie Harbor Canal Development Corp., a subsidiary of Empire State Development Corp., which is charged with developing the inner harbor at the foot of Main Street. Others think it may be a job for a sister subsidiary, and wouldn’t that be the Buffalo way – two development corporations with similar powers and responsibilities operating side by each.

Brown, meanwhile, told The Buffalo News last week that City Hall could lead the way.

“We believe, because we have the resources of the Public Works and Planning departments, we would do a good job in not only managing but developing,” Brown told The News.

“Primarily, we’re interested in Gallagher Beach and the Small Boat Harbor, but we’re certainly willing to look at the entire thing,” he added. “The city has demonstrated its ability to bring in resources for major public works or infrastructure projects.”

In the abstract, it makes sense for a municipal government, rather than an authority, to handle major projects. Democracy, accountability and all that.

So does it make sense to give Brown’s pitch serious consideration?

Let’s examine City Hall’s track record on waterfront development.

Brown hangs his hat on the city’s longtime ownership of a marina that it has leased to a private operator. Gee, that’s pretty thin as credentials go.

What’s noteworthy about City Hall’s involvement on the waterfront is how it has gotten in the way of development.

Last year, Brown stopped development of a restaurant in the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park over a lot of heated protests.

Prior to that, the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency that he chairs and controls through appointees flubbed a competition in 2008 to develop a hotel at Erie Basin Marina. An investigation I did for The News found BURA mismanaged the selection process and  selected a development team that failed to get the project off the drawing board, due in part to opposition on the Common Council.

Brown also contends his public works and planning departments are equipped to handle waterfront development.

I don’t know.

Brendan Mehaffy, the executive director of the Office of Strategic Planning, has a planning degree, but most of his experience has been as a lawyer. He came to the job with little to no experience in the development field.

Meanwhile, the public works department, thanks to a change in the city charter during the Masiello era, is no longer headed by someone with an engineering degree, which is standard in most large governments. Public Works Commissioner Steven Stepniak has “specialized training” in engineering, according to his City Hall bio, but his degree is in communications.

The city has no economic development agency of its own, either.

BURA is essentially a pass-through agency for federal funds and the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. was shuttered by Brown two years ago in the wake of the One Sunset scandal, which was the final straw that followed years of ineffectiveness.

Finally, there is the lingering stench of scandal.

The odor still hasn’t lifted from One Sunset and Brown and Deputy Mayor Steve Casey are being sued by a Cleveland developer who claims the city tried to muscle it to hire a politically connected pastor. Combine that with the exploits of disgraced and indicted former Council member Brian Davis, a one-time Brown ally, you can understand why federal agents continue to sniff around City Hall.

All this does not bode well for Gov. Andrew Cuomo turning the waterfront over to Brown and Co. Keep in mind, when Cuomo announced his $1 billion plan to revitalize the region’s economy, his people pointedly said state, not local officials, would manage the initiative. There’s no reason to think Cuomo and Co. will view the state-owned waterfront any differently.

Moreover, Brown is unlikely to find any political heavyweights locally to take up his cause.

Sam Hoyt, who heads up Empire State Development’s regional office, is a longtime Brown critic.

The mayor and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz aren’t exactly buddies, and Brown essentially fired Deputy County Executive Rich Tobe when he headed the city’s economic development efforts. Tobe now heads up the county’s efforts in that regard.

Congressman Brian Higgins, the waterfront’s leading champion, called Brown out last year for standing in the way of the Naval Park restaurant and otherwise appears increasingly inpatient with the mayor.

Finally, there is the manner in which Brown is handling development of the Webster block across the street from the hockey arena. It abuts the acreage controlled by the Erie Harbor Canal Development Corp. and Brown decided to issue a request for proposals for the parcel without consulting with the agency. Suffice to say, that didn’t go over very well.

So, long story short, Brown can ask for a piece of the waterfront action, but his administration has too few assets and too much baggage for his pitch to get more than an  obligatory hearing from Albany.