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Seven Days: The Straight Dope From the Week That Was

Democratic debt

Last week we suggested that the state’s Democratic Party leadership might be using the three close State Senate races as fundraising vehicles, stirring up the party’s deep-pocketed donors with promises to review and recount each ballot, when in fact the party really needed to pay off some loans they’d taken to finance this expensive election cycle.

It turns out the Democratic debt is deeper than we thought: The New York State Senate Democratic Campaign Committee has outstanding loans of more than $2.4 million, most of it borrowed from the National Bank of New York City. But that’s not all: State Senator John Sampson, the Democratic Majority Conference Leader, sent $950,000 to the NYSSDCC this year, much of it in the last three months, and Senator-elect Michael Gianaris kicked in another $305,000. Those aren’t loans, and for Gianaris—who came to Buffalo to work on the ballot review in the 60th District race that Antoine Thompson conceded to Mark Grisanti on Tuesday—the transfers to the NYSSDCC may be factored into the price of the seat he’s just won. But I imagine that Sampson would like to have some of that money returned to him at some point. He’s still got a half million in the bank, which would be more than adequate for, say, Senator-elect Tim Kennedy or Senator Mike Ranzenhofer. But for Sampson, a downstate Democratic Party leader who is expected to be a river unto his people, that’s perilously low. His campaign committee has spent close to $100,000 a month on average since January 2009.

The NYSSDCC spent close $300,000 each on behalf of Tim Kennedy and Antoine Thompson in the weeks between the primary and the general election. Neither received significant help during the primary campaign: Kennedy was challenging an incumbent Democrat in Bill Stachowski and Thompson did not seem to need help. But if there’s any sign of Thompson’s peril to be gleaned from the campaign finance records, maybe it’s the $6,000 that Sampson sent Thompson’s campaign on September 8, just before the primary.

Mark Grisanti claims victory, still awaits a congratulatory call from Antoine Thompson.

Sore loser

Antoine Thompson sent out a brief statement on Tuesday that read more or less like a concession:

I thank the residents of the 60th Senatorial District for allowing me to serve them for four years - a duty that I took very seriously and an experience for which I am extremely grateful. I thank the many community partners who I’ve had the pleasure of working with side-by-side for a better 60th District. Together, we accomplished monumental successes in the areas of economic development, education and the environment.

Thompson did not, however, make the traditional congratulatory phone call to his opponent, Mark Grisanti.

Grisanti’s win evens up the Senate at 29 Democrats and 31 Republicans thus far, with two downstate races still to be decided. Republican Jack Martins has most likely beaten Democrat Craig Johnson in Long Island, though Democrats say they may ask for a recount. Westchester County’s Suzi Oppenheimer continues to lead Republican challenger Bob Cohen.

LP Ciminelli vs. ECHDC

On Monday, the directors of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation made some concessions to those who have been pressuring them to reconsider their plans for waterfront development in the absence of a Bass Pro megastore. ECHDC agreed to direct some money toward developing a park in the Outer Harbor; to study the possibility of making Gallagher Beach sandy and swimmable; to consider construction of a canopied pavilion on the Inner Harbor, as well as rest rooms and other amenities to support its programming and use of the site’s boating facilities; and to hire Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces to advise three new ECHDC subcommittees that will seek to public input to help define ECHDC’s role in rejuvenating the Inner and Outer Harbors, as well as the Buffalo River. ECHDC promised to endeavor to make its replica canals as historically authentic as is feasible.

There were some other provisions included, too, in the board’s adoption of the modified general project plan, which now must be approved by ECHDC’s parent, the Empire State Development Corporation. Most notably, the board tabled plans to construct an underground parking ramp on the old Aud site, which had been designed to support Bass Pro. Opponents had argued that the ramp was unnecessary, given Bass Pro’s abandonment of the project and ample parking within reasonable distance of the harbor, and that the ramp served a vision of the project that revolved around a big-box anchor attraction.

That underground parking ramp had already gone out to bid and precipitated a lawsuit: LP Ciminelli, one of the pre-approved bidders on the project, filed suit against ECHDC and the Pike Company of Rochester, which was awarded the contract, on November 5. The suit alleged that ECHDC had allowed the Pike Company to submit amendments to its bid after the bid process had closed, in violation of state law, by means of which Pike became the low bidder instead of LP Ciminelli. (The suit is good reading: it's posted here on AV Daily.)

Now that lawsuit is mooted: On Tuesday, the day after its directors voted to table the underground parking ramp, ECHDC issued letters to all bidders, rejecting the bids on the grounds that the entire project was being re-scoped. So, even if the replica canals can’t be made too authentic, and even if four of five parking facilities in ECHDC’s original plan remain—and even though the fifth can be taken up again, “If, down the road, it becomes clear that additional parking is required,” according to ECHDC’s chairman, Jordan Levy—at least the agency got out from under one lawsuit.

Proposal: Let's build a massive gallery on the Aud site to house all the artists' renderings of Canalside.

The "cautious" in "cautiously optimistic"

At Monday’s Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation meeting, Tim Tielman of the Campaign for Buffalo History, Architecture, and Culture said he was “cautiously optimistic” about ECHDC’s changes and additions to its modified general project plan.

By the next day, as he prepared a report for his board members, Tielman had enumerated those items that made him cautious:

First, many of the projects ECHDC has added to the plan are separate from the triangle of land that is of special concern to historic preservationists. Money for Gallagher Beach and a park in the Outer Harbor are terrific, Tielman says, but what exactly has changed in the Inner Harbor?

ECHDC’s board voted to table, not abandon, an underground parking ramp on the Aud site. They did not consider extending the historic street pattern into the Aud site, or separating the Aud site into smaller parcels that could be marketed for uses different than the big-box retail anchor that has been ECHDC’s white whale.

The ECHDC board did not consider extending the Central Wharf to the foot of Main Street, and Tielman says he was struck by the careful language ECHDC’s board chairman, Jordan Levy, used in discussing the possibility of building a public pavilion on the site. “He said they would study the possibility,” Tielman says. “He was careful not to commit to building it.”

The ECHDC board voted to make the replica canals it has proposed as historically authentic as is feasible. “That’s a hole you could drive a Mack truck through,” Tielman says.

The board did not consider funding further archeological work on the site, which could be marketed as an ongoing cultural attraction while preparing the site for development. They did not consider aquabuses or other water transport. There was no talk of restoring or even alluding to the railroad infrastructure that is as much a part of the site’s history as the canals.

Lastly, the ECHDC board did not consider committing funds to planning or construction of Dug’s Dive, a legendary tavern that Tielman imagines as a cultural center dedicated to the Underground railroad and the region’s African-American history, as well as to the local history of immigration and historic preservation.

Stranded money

During a briefing he delivered to members of Buffalo’s Common Council earlier this week, Comptroller Andy SanFilippo discussed pots of money that the city has borrowed for capital projects over the years which has not yet been spent.

How much? About $48 million for city projects, and another $16 million for Buffalo Public Schools projects, according to SanFilippo. The city will borrow about $22 million for capital projects this year.

Some of that money may be spent eventually. Some of it has been stranded for years, the money languishing in accounts that cannot be tapped for any other purpose than to fund the project for which it was borrowed or to pay down the debt incurred.

Common council report

North District Councilman Joe Golombek’s proposal that the city should consider a city manager form of government took a small step forward on Tuesday. Common Council President Dave Franczyk appointed the first two members to a task force whose job is to study the idea. Attorney Peter Reese previously served on a panel that suggested reforms to Erie County government, and Sam Iraci is a former deputy mayor of Buffalo and city manger of Elmira.

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