Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Real Estate Classifieds Contact
Previous story: Occupiers in City Hall
Next story: Lancaster Operatics

Stenhouse Denied Again

Three weeks ago, we carried an item noting that the Jeremiah Partnership, a group of African-American ministers with real estate development interests on the East Side, was awaiting payment on a RESTORE New York grant for $763,576. The grant from Empire State Development Corporation is intended to reimburse the partnership, headed by Reverend Richard Stenhouse, for the conversion of an abandoned building at Main Street, between Utica and Ferry, and the construction of new parking facilities for the adjacent Bethel Head Start program.

Construction on the project began in May, but for several weeks South District Councilman Mickey Kearns has held up a measure to approve acceptance of the grant money in the finance committee that he chairs, awaiting responses to his questions about the project. In addition to some nuts-and-bolts questions about the nature of the project and its financing, he has two: Why is the city acting as a pass-through for state money to Stenhouse, who is named in a civil lawsuit by Cleveland development company NRP Group, which alleges that Mayor Byron Brown killed an East Side housing project when NRP refused to create a paying role in the project for Stenhouse and the Jeremiah Partnership. (The lawsuit’s allegations are expressed in phrases like “pay-to-play” and words like “racketeering.”) Second, why did construction begin before the Common Council had approved acceptance of the grant—before the city comptroller’s office had even created an account into which the money could flow?

Although Stenhouse has spoken with Kearns by phone, he has not agreed to appear before the Council to take questions. So on Tuesday, the city’s chief of strategic planning, Brendan Mehaffy, did his best to brief the finance committee. He detailed the history of the project, including its history of approvals, described the conversion of the abandoned building (it used to be a Peugeot dealership, from which Lovejoy’s Rich Fontana said he’d once purchased a car), the construction of a parking ramp and surface parking, and new office space, all in order to open 70 new spaces for students in the Head Start program, for which there is a substantial waiting list.

Mehaffy explained that the project was near completion, and the state money would reimburse the Jeremiah Partnership for the capital it had fronted. Asked if anyone from the city had advised the Jeremiah Partnership to commence work before the money had been accepted by the city, Mehaffy said he understood that the go-ahead had been given by someone at ESDC.

Darby Fishkin, the deputy comptroller, still on hand from the discussion about Occupy Buffalo and JPMorgan Chase, agreed with Kearns that no project funded with public grants should begin until all approvals have been obtained. “Whoever gave the applicant advice to start working, I’d fire him,” Kearns said. “That was some bad advice.”

Masten District Councilman Demone Smith, who is also named in NRP’s lawsuit, defended the project. Head Start is a good program with well documented positive results, he said. The project represented investment in Buffalo’s East Side, which direly needs it. It results in the reuse of an abandoned building. The city has no financial commitment to the project; it’s all state grant money and private equity. Most importantly, he said, anyone can sure anyone else for anything, and the NRP lawsuit and the Head Start project are completely separate issues. Efforts to expand a program like Head Start, he said, “should be beyond the reach of politics,” which he suspected to be the source of the delay. Stenhouse is, after all, an ally of the mayor, with whom Kearns and the Council majority frequently fight.

“It’s a clean project,” Smith said. “It’s been vetted. It’s got to move forward.”

Council President Dave Franczyk, who arrived late, replied that he didn’t know what “beyond the reach of politics” meant, but Stenhouse was “under a cloud of suspicion” and he was uncomfortable with the city acting as a pass-through for his grant money until the allegations in the lawsuit were investigated.

After much debate, Kearns asked for a motion from the floor. There was silence. (Smith is not a member of the committee, so he could not make a motion. The only mayoral ally on the finance committee, the University District’s Bonnie Russell, was absent.) Finally, Delaware’s Mike LoCurto made a motion that the item be discharged from committee and sent to the entire Council for a vote.

“Is there a second?” Kearns asked.

There was not. But there followed a motion to table the item, which was quickly seconded and approved, after which Smith briskly left chambers, muttering as he did, “Must be nice to be white sometimes.”

blog comments powered by Disqus