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WATERFRONT WATCHDOGS
OFFICIALS ARE SEEKING THE GOVERNOR'S APPROVAL FOR A TEAM TO OVERSEE AND COORDINATE IN A TIMELY FASHION ANY PROJECTS SLATED FOR BUFFALO'S INNER AND OUTER HARBORS

A proposal to establish a nonprofit corporation to coordinate development and progress in both Buffalo's inner and outer harbors has quietly been put together and now sits on the desk of Gov. George E. Pataki, awaiting his support.

The properties that would be overseen by this entity would be under the control of a board of directors representing Buffalo, the county and a half dozen state and federal agencies. But no coordinating body now exists.

Rep. Brian M. Higgins, County Executive Joel A. Giambra and Mayor Anthony M. Masiello support the proposal, which needs the governor's approval for political as well as legal reasons.

A special-purpose development corporation "represents the best hope our community has for significant and lasting waterfront development that can be accomplished over a short period of time," Higgins wrote to Pataki.

The effort will go nowhere without the support of the governor, who appoints the commissioners of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which controls most of the outer harbor land, and the head of a state agency that will take over operation of the Small Boat Harbor late this year.

The governor's office said it has not received Higgins' letter and could not comment.

Giambra, though, said the governor's staff has been examining the nonprofit corporation plan for weeks.

And locally, Giambra said, "this has been under discussion for months."

Representatives of the city, county, other stakeholders in the harbor areas and community leaders would make up the board of this quasi-governmental body, Higgins said. It would have a limited life span, he added, unlike an authority that can last forever.

The corporation builds on an agreement between Giambra and Masiello to set up a nonprofit company to coordinate the Bass Pro Shops project and all inner harbor construction.

Giambra and Masiello quietly approved the Bass Pro/inner harbor corporation plan, similar to one that created the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus, about a month ago. Masiello said it was drawn up by an attorney at Rich Products, whose president, Robert E. Rich Jr., has acted as a kind of matchmaker for the Bass Pro initiative.

Since then, Giambra and Masiello said, the plan has been expanded to embrace both the inner and outer harbors.

Voice of experience

Higgins wants Lawrence Quinn, the managing partner of the Buffalo Sabres who oversaw construction of HSBC Arena, to take a leadership role in the creation of the corporation.

Quinn said he will help the agency only on a "civic, nonpaying basis." He said the proposed nonprofit corporation is modeled not only after the one that coordinates activity at the medical campus but also resembles one that facilitated construction of Baltimore's successful inner harbor development.

One key to its success, Quinn said, is "creation of a board of directors who can transcend politics."

Quinn, who is also a former Buffalo community renewal commissioner, is an informal adviser to Higgins, Masiello and the Giambra administration.

Laurence K. Rubin, Erie County's Environment and Planning commissioner, participated in designing the proposal, officials said.

Higgins said the contrast between the brilliance of Baltimore's harbor development and the bleak "mess" of Buffalo's outer harbor illustrates the need for the corporation.

"In a side trip, I looked at what Baltimore has done and what we haven't done and I decided enough is enough," the Buffalo Democrat said.

"The appearance of the Buffalo waterfront area is a source of regional frustration and evokes feelings of disgrace and embarrassment in the community," Higgins said. "It looks like an abandoned construction site," he said.

Little has been done with more than $54 million in federal aid that has been reserved to improve both areas, he added, and the region is in danger of losing the money if it isn't invested.

"We do not even seem to have any local responsible official who can even speak for what the outcome is going to be for the Bass Pro project," Higgins said in an interview.

NFTA considers proposal

An example of waste and stagnation, Higgins said, is the $6 million that has been spent over the last decade on studies for the Southtowns Connector for the outer harbor.

Lawrence Meckler, the NFTA's executive director, said Higgins called him last Thursday and faxed him a copy of his letter to the governor, along with a fact sheet.

"Anything that will move this process forward," Meckler said, "is worth considering."

Meckler said the NFTA designated Lakefront Development Team, a partnership of national and local developers including Uniland of Amherst, as the preferred developer for the authority's 120 acres on the outer harbor. But he added that a memorandum of understanding with the company is still being discussed.

Higgins said the nonprofit corporation would not require approval of the State Legislature. He pointed to the transfer of property for Gallagher Beach from the NFTA to the state Department of Parks and Recreation as an example.

The nonprofit corporation's board must represent stakeholders in the two areas, Higgins said.

"I think equally as important is the participation of concerned citizens and others in the community who want to see progress here," he said.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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