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Fruit Belt Residents Confront UB Panel

New roofs being installed at McCarley Gardens in November 2009.

Members of a University at Buffalo panel received an earful from disgruntled Fruit Belt residents last Thursday night (December 13), during a “special meeting” in the Zebro Family Conference Room at Roswell Park Buffalo Life Science Center.

Over two years ago, amid great media hoopla, UB announced its intent to buy McCarley Gardens—a HUD-subsidized moderate-income housing complex—from the development arm of Reverend Michael Chapman’s St. John Baptist Church for $15 million, with the intent to knock it down. The parcel sits on 15 acres of land that is coveted for real estate development, adjacent to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Money for the sale would come from one of the various UB Foundations, which control something in the neighborhood of three-quarters of a billion dollars.

For 150 families, however, McCarley Gardens is home.

Lorraine Chambley, who lives in McCarley Gardens, took the panel to task for not effectively reaching out to residents there. She pointed to the meeting notice, which reads, in part: “UB and St. John Baptist Church have entered into a contract to prepare the McCarley Gardens property for future use by UB as part of its downtown campus development.” Why was it that she was one of only three residents at the meeting? And why weren’t meeting notices distributed to all residents, if the meeting was about them? She heard about the meeting through the grapevine—as did Artvoice.

Driving to the point, former city councilman George K. Arthur said that Fruit Belt residents have been kept in the dark by UB. The first order of business, he said, is for UB to release a copy of the contract that was signed in April, 2010, regarding the sale.

Buffalo City Court Judge James A. W. McLeod, a member of the panel, attempted to put the room at ease by explaining that he had looked at the contract and reported that there wasn’t anything in it for anybody to be worried about. McLeod is a current vice chairman of Great Lakes Health System—the group that gets together periodically to plan out real estate and other business moves for Erie County Medical Center, Kaleida Health, and UB. He’s also on the board of Kaleida Health. All that credibility aside, residents remained intent on reading the contract for themselves.

From the back row, I raised my hand. Marsha Henderson, former UB vice president for external affairs, and current “consultant” to the UB president, left her position at the big notepad at the front of the room and asked me if I was there just as an observer or not, because they wouldn’t be giving out quotes for the press at the meeting. I told her I just wanted to clarify that the contract is not between UB and St. John’s, but rather the UB Foundation and St. John’s.

She confirmed that the contract was with the foundation. “So it’s not a public document, right?” I asked.

“It’s not a public document,” she said.

Arthur said it didn’t matter whether UB or the UB Foundation signed the contract. Because the two-year-old agreement is affecting the lives of Fruit Belt residents, they should have access to it. He gave them a January 3 deadline to release the contract, adding that such a gesture was long overdue.

Further, residents need to understand what is going on with the HUD contract. Since HUD would have to approve the sale of McCarley Gardens, residents will be exploring their rights to have their voices heard in the process, he added.

Arthur wasn’t done. Sitting next to Fruit Belt organizer Veronica Nichols, who has been instrumental in raising community awareness of these issues, he then focused on the makeup of the Economic Opportunity Panel. UB and St. John’s each named three people to the six-person group. Dennis Black is vice president of University Life and Services at UB. June Hoeflich is a UB Council member and former CEO of the now-defunct Sheehan Hospital. Paul A. Tesluk is the Donald S. Carmichael Professor of Organizational Behavior at the UB School of Management. Colleen B. Cummings is the former executive director for the Buffalo Employment and Training Center. Brenda W. McDuffie is president and CEO of Buffalo Urban League, Inc. Judge McLeod’s credentials are listed above. Assisting the panel are the aforementioned Marsha Henderson and Dr. Bradshaw Hovey, Senior Fellow, UB Urban Design Project and UB Regional Institute.

The problem, Arthur said, is that none of the panel members live in the Fruit Belt. How can such a panel possibly advise UB administrators on what that community needs? Arthur called for the current panel to be dissolved, and for it to be reconstituted to include residents of the community which it was formed to represent.

Panelists said they would share these concerns with UB President Satish Tripathi.

From there, the meeting featured testimonials from Fruit Belt residents who have not benefited from the job creation the BNMC frequently touts. One man described the frustration of running a contracting business, having secured every conceivable permit and license to do the type of work that has become routine on the various construction jobs at the BNMC over the past decade, only to have every one of his bids passed over, year after year.

“Don’t believe the hype,” was his comment when it came to job creation for fruit belt residents.

Another young woman described her disappointment at rejection after rejection every time she applied for office positions with Kaleida, or Roswell Park, or other health-related enterprises in the BNMC. She has the appropriate degrees and training, she explained, but never received calls back. It was painful for her to know she could do a job—a job that she could walk to from her house—but time after time would have to watch as a candidate from the suburbs was chosen. One candidate who beat her out was actually late for her job interview because she got lost on the way.

The meeting was scheduled to run from 5:30 to 7pm, but wound up running nearly 45 minutes longer. Original agenda items like “What can be done to make permanent employment more accessible?” and “What can be done to make small business opportunities more accessible?” and “What can be done to ensure the impact of new investments is positive on neighborhood quality of life?” never really got off the ground. Instead, panelists found themselves on the hot seat, unable to satisfy the concerns of the assembled Fruit Belt church and block club leaders, business owners, and residents who appear to have had enough after years of lip service.

Calls to Hovey and Henderson were not returned, and they did not respond to email requests for comment. A secretary at UB explained that Henderson, no longer a state employee, works from home in her new role as consultant to Tripathi. The best way to reach her is by email, I was told.

That same lack of accessibility is what Fruit Belt residents were railing against. They plan to meet again before the January 3 deadline offered by Arthur, to plan their next course of action.

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