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A Chorus Line: Governor Cuomo, Legislators Dig In

To each, a shovel: the good and the great break ground on UB's new medical school building.

Tuesday morning at 9:15, a crowd of politicians, dignitaries, movers-and-shakers, and reporters were milling around on the cobblestones of Canalside as Governor Andrew Cuomo exited his car and shook hands with Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation board chairman Robert Gioia. The two stood shoulder to shoulder beneath the skyway as Gioia pointed out various landmarks, and described the concerts and other activities that take place there to Cuomo—who looked around, nodding his head in approval.

Then, the crowd boarded a well detailed NFTA bus—reporters at the back—and a brief tour of the inner and outer harbors commenced. Gioia took a microphone like a Hollywood tour guide and began to narrate the trip. On your left, the historic canals that are being recreated. Also on your left, the old Donovan state office building, which is being rehabbed and will be the new home of the Phillips Lytle LLP law firm, as well as other mixed use sorts of things. “Portions are set to open in November,” he added.

Rolling on, Gioia pointed out “the old Buffalo News building.” This elicited chuckles among various reporters. One remarked to News political writer Robert J. McCarthy: “Sorry you had to hear it this way, Bob.”

Onward they rolled, and Cuomo was shown the new Seneca Casino sitting dismally to the left under the gray fall sky. Down Ohio Street, Gioia talked about improvements made possible there thanks to $8.5 million from the federal government and $2.5 million from ECHDC. On their right, passengers looked at Riverfest Park, made possible with State funding and money from the New York Power Authority. A little further along on the right was the Buffalo Scholastic Rowing Association park on the Buffalo River; and to the left, Silo City, with its climbing wall, soon-to-be restaurants and bold lighting. “This will be the next development area in the city,” Gioia predicted. Further along the river, riders were directed to the left, toward the Erie Freight House that Sam Savarino wants to demolish and replace with an aprtment complex.

As the bus crossed under Route 5 and turned right onto Fuhrmann Boulevard, Gioia pointed to the huge, vacant Freezer Queen building sitting on the water’s edge, ripe for development. Next to it, the old building that briefly housed NanoDynamics before that company went bankrupt in 2009—despite generous government assistance and gushing endorsements from every politician around at the time. It is the new home of Gracious Living, a Canadian company that makes injection-molded deck furniture. They recently bought the place from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and promise to put in millions of dollars worth of equipment and infrastructure and create 250 jobs.

Gioia talked about “engaging with experts to help us with the visioning process,” and a nine-member review committee that will make the best of this “chance of a lifetime” opportunity to connect the community to the waterfront. As the bus passed Dug’s Dive and the accompanying marina, Gioia pointed out Gallagher Beach, and remarked how a study is being done on sand erosion there. Riders looked out at the empty space under cloudy skies, and Gioia cracked wise: “If Howard [Zemsky] tells us it’s a beach, it’s a beach!” There were chuckles all around.

The way back into town was emceed by NFTA board chair Howard Zemsky, who began setting the stage for the big highlight of the day—the ceremonial groundbreaking for the new $375 million UB Medical School at the corner of Main and High Streets. The numbers were inspirational: 17,000 will be concentrated in the medical campus in five years. It is a consortium of nine institutions, and 55 companies located there—none were listed, but we know that Smart Pill was not among them. As the bus rolled up to its destination, Zemsky pointed out how the Main-Allen subway station would be incorporated within the huge new building.

SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher joined the assembled politicians at one side of a long mound of soft soil that had been spread out on the ground, resembling a fresh grave. They were given immaculate, chrome-plated shovels. When all were assembled, on the count of three, each one scooped and tossed a small pile of dirt. The cameras clicked and whirred.

Then Cuomo was ushered into a small tent where he answered a couple of questions for the reporters and cameramen jammed in there. In a moment that portion of the day was over, and those who had been on the bus entered into a huge white event tent‐where hundreds of medical campus employees, UB alumni, and other well wishers were seated in tight rows on folding chairs.

Amid enthusiastic applause, Michael Cain, dean of the UB Medical School, took to the dais. He thanked all the partners who had made this day a reality—the architects, the SUNY Construction Fund, NFTA administration, and members of Buffalo building trades. At this “historic milestone” he was pleased to welcome some UB grads in the front row that had graduated from UB’s first med school. Which provoked a couple quizzical looks in the crowd, since the first med school opened in 1847.

UB President Satish Tripathi called it “a defining moment for Buffalo and New York State.” Chancellor Zimpher was “thrilled to be here,” and excited that the “place will soon be bustling with cranes and hard hats.”

“Our public private partnerships are working,” she said, but offered no examples.

M&T Bank chairman and CEO Robert G. Wilmers referenced poet Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man,” and said it was important for us to be able to “look backward with pride, and forward with hope.” He lamented the fact that the medical school had left the downtown area and relocated, in 1953, to the suburbs. Which must have landed with a thud on the ears of University Heights residents—who live in the part of the city where the medical school has been located for the past 60 years.

Mayor Byron Brown said it was another example of Buffalo growing stronger. Cuomo remarked that it was 31 years to the day since the closure of Bethlehem Steel, which sent the region into a long, downward spiral. He spoke about the “broken window theory,” wherein blight begets more blight. During the hour-and-a-half ceremony, virtually every single local politician took a turn at the mic, all soaking up the appreciation of the rapt, if fatigued, crowd.

After several more speakers and some inspirational videos from UB Council Chairman Jeremy Jacobs and Congressman Chris Collins, among others, the event was declared a success and everyone crowded into an adjoining tent for snacks and coffee.

According to UB spokesperson John Della Contrada, the new building will be paid for with $35 million in state capital appropriations, $50 million in funds previously planned for deferred maintenance work on the current south campus medical school, $50 million in fundraising, $25 million in SMBS reserves, and $215 million in bond financing.

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