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Officials tout progress on heritage corridor

After nearly five years of frustrating delays, champions of an effort to build a heritage corridor showcasing a Buffalo neighborhood that shaped the nation's civil rights movement are pointing to signs of progress.

A funding issue has been resolved that is expected to redirect $120,000 in state grants to pay for the creation of a long-awaited management plan for the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor, officials said.

Meanwhile, a consultant who has been studying the corridor will meet with community stakeholders Tuesday, then hold a public meeting where people will be encouraged to share visions for one of the city's most historic neighborhoods.

"We're looking for a bright future for the whole area," said Bishop Clarence W. Montgomery Jr., pastor of Michigan Street Baptist Church and a member of a commission created by the state in 2007 to help chart the corridor's future.

Officials from Huntley Partners/CHA Consultants already have been doing research on the corridor, said commission Chairwoman Karen Stanley Fleming. The public input session Tuesday will be a "huge step" in advancing the process, she said.

"We need to make sure that there is public engagement and community ownership," Stanley Fleming said. "We do not want a plan that is developed in an ivory tower and will end up sitting on a shelf."

Many are convinced that the neighborhood could become a magnet for heritage tourism. It is home to cultural landmarks, including the Michigan Street Baptist Church, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad and a force in the civil rights movement.

The corridor also includes the J. Edward Nash House Museum and the Colored Musicians Club, two cultural landmarks that have already undergone significant renovations.

Forging a comprehensive plan for the corridor can't come soon enough, said Bishop William H. Henderson, former pastor of Michigan Baptist who remains active as the church's caretaker. Henderson said he's convinced that heightened interest in the corridor will prod leaders to avoid further delays.

"I have every confidence that this is going to blow up and become something great," Henderson said of efforts to highlight the historic fabric of a neighborhood on the edge of downtown.

Fleming said the process was delayed for six to 12 months because of funding complications. State grants totaling $120,000 were initially tied to a condition that the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency administer the funds.

"Under that scenario, the commission would have had to pay the city a fiscal management fee," she said.

Since that time, the commission has received tax-exempt status. Stanley Fleming said the funds will be redirected to the commission as a reimbursement once the consulting fee is levied. The goal is to develop a management plan that will enable the heritage corridor to snare additional grants and other resources to develop the area and possibly even surrounding neighborhoods.

Montgomery and Stanley Fleming said they understand why some have criticized the pace of the effort. But Stanley Fleming insisted that some heritage corridors have taken eight or even 10 years to launch, citing a maze of complex tasks involving everything from grant applications to historic preservation issues.

"What I say to those who are a little bit impatient is that I share your desire that the process should have gone faster," she said. "We all would have liked it to have gone faster. But it actually is not long in terms of comparison to other state heritage areas."

The public meeting will be 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday in Frederick Douglass Center, 234 Jefferson Ave.