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Backbone made the difference

This year we learned to stand up for ourselves. We fought for what we deserve. We found out how good it feels not to be abused. After decades of do-little "leaders" and settling for less, we saw the success that backbone can bring.

*Power Authority: With apologies to John Mellencamp, authority doesn't always win. Rep. Brian Higgins led the fight for more compensation from the state Power Authority for Niagara Falls' hydropower. Many who should have stood with him instead carried the authority's water, parroting its threat that we risked losing the cheap power we already have.

Higgins fought on, the authority caved in and we will get $279 million to use to revive our long-stagnant waterfront.

*Waterfront Reclaimed: After 50 inglorious years, we waved goodbye to the transportation authority's hold on the vast stretch of waterfront along Route 5. Embarrassed by its predictable failure to get a mega-development off the ground, battered by Higgins and others, and blessed with sensible new leadership, the trains-planes-and-buses people will mercifully get out of the waterfront business.

With a local panel in charge, new roads and bridges will connect the "can't get there from here" outer harbor to downtown. Pocket parks and a waterfront trail are coming. The long-overdue new day is here.

*Erie Canal Harbor: Folks fought -- and won -- to get the state to resurrect the historic canal terminus near the old Aud. The rightness of the fight is more obvious each day, as the rewatered Commercial Slip and unearthed building ruins take form and draw onlookers.

"We call them 'fence hangers,' " said project manager Tom Blanchard. "Sometimes they wander onto the site, we have to tell them it's hard-hats only."

The glorious history the state once nearly discarded will become a centerpiece of lower Main Street development, with a planned marketplace and canal history museum.

*Tolls Came Down -- Commuters paid for decades what amounted to an entry fee into Buffalo at two Niagara Thruway toll booths. When the highway robbery rose to 75 cents a pop, hot-wired downtown businessman Carl Paladino sued the Thruway Authority. When the lawsuit got traction in court, politicians who talked for years about removing the tolls -- instead of doing something about it -- jumped on the bandwagon. Eight months after Paladino sued, the commuter tax ended.

*Downtown Housing Boom: Conversion of grand but vacant buildings into living space is no longer the exception but the rule. Developers such as Rocco Termini, Eran Epstein, Bernie and Ben Obletz and Sam Savarino breathed new life into old buildings. Hordes moved in, from twentysomethings drawn to late-night action to bioinformatics recruits to empty nesters hungry for downtown culture. The lesson is to use what we've got -- in this case, great 19th century buildings that cities like Atlanta and Denver would kill for.

Success breeds success. New Era Cap relocated its headquarters to Delaware Avenue. The new BlueCross BlueShield headquarters is going up at downtown's edge. A big office building will finally fill the vacant lot near Asbury Methodist church -- which was saved and resurrected by folk/punk icon Ani DiFranco and manager Scot Fisher. A British investor will renovate the worn Statler. Channel 2 even took down the obnoxious razor wire ringing its downtown parking lot.

By any measure, it was a very good year. Measured against Buffalo's stagnant, leadership-light history, it was a turning point.


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