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Brown gives himself an 'A' after first year as Buffalo mayor Others agree he's had some success, but other problems linger

He faced a ferocious October storm, a spike in homicides and flak over a planned casino.

He revamped the city's economic development offices, steered some new projects to fruition, launched a long-awaited accountability system and helped snare big increases in state aid.

Mayor Byron W. Brown gets mixed reviews from some community leaders and residents for his first year in office.

Some praise him for hiring a quality Cabinet, instilling discipline in City Hall and forging an agenda that zeroes in on development and quality of life issues.

Others worry about a rising number of homicides, continuing decay in some neighborhoods and perceptions that the mayor's emphasis on protocol and discipline creates an insulated administration.

Brown doesn't hesitate when asked to grade his first year in office. He said he deserves an "A."

He then spent more than an hour highlighting dozens of initiatives he says he launched since becoming Buffalo's 58th mayor.

Vacant buildings are being boarded up and demolished faster than they were in the past, he insisted. Neighborhood cleanup efforts have been intensified. New crime prevention strategies are being implemented, including a plan to install surveillance cameras in trouble spots.

He also maintains that his reorganized economic development programs under the direction of Richard M. Tobe have removed barriers and reduced delays.

"As a result, we have seen record investment this year in the City of Buffalo, with a little over $3 billion in projects that are announced or under way," Brown said.

Rep. Brian Higgins credited Brown's quick actions for helping to convince Hydro-Air Components to expand operations at the old Republic Steel Plant in South Buffalo.

When Brown learned the Hamburg company was poised to move its operations out of state, he scrambled to set up a weekend meeting and helped to cut through red tape that had been jeopardizing the deal for months, Higgins said.

Some business leaders, including Buffalo Place Executive Director Michael Schmand, point to projects like the relocation of New Era Cap's headquarters to Delaware Avenue as evidence that Brown is on the right track. He credited the mayor for pursuing some key initiatives that were started under his predecessor, Anthony M. Masiello. They include an aggressive push to restore traffic to Main Street and ongoing efforts to promote new housing downtown.

"You gauge things by what you see out your window," Schmand said. "When you look at downtown, I think you see some very positive things."

Brown's economic development czar expressed similar sentiments.

"We've had our ups and downs, but overall it has been a terrific year," Tobe said. "People are seeing the cranes. They're seeing the construction. I believe optimism is returning to Buffalo."

>Multifaceted blueprint

Local developer Dennis Penman also gives high marks to Brown's first year.

"The mayor put his arms around positive development in the city rather quickly," said Penman, chairman of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency. "His picking of Rich Tobe and retaining Tim Wanamaker [as strategic planning director] sent a strong message to the development community."

But not everyone gives the mayor glowing reviews. Local historian and businessman Mark Goldman says many of Brown's policies have been misguided, claiming they rely too heavily on "silver bullets" like the planned downtown casino and Bass Pro Shops project.

"I'm convinced it suggests the mayor has little understanding of how cities renew themselves," Goldman said. "I think they mean well. I just don't think they know how cities work."

Goldman urges the mayor to focus on strengthening assets, nourishing what Buffalo already has.

Brown insisted he's doing just that with a multifaceted blueprint for revival; for example, several business incubators are in the works. Also, the city has acquired about 200 acres of land for shovel-ready sites to accommodate expanding businesses.

>Great quarterbacking

"Our goal is another 200 acres next year that will create an environment where we can have more incremental and consistent growth of business in the community," Brown said. Some local leaders give high marks to the Brown administration's cleanup in the aftermath of the "October Surprise" storm. Schmand, Penman and others added that it appears as if some city offices are operating more efficiently, including the Office of Economic Development, Permits and Inspections.

"The mayor has done a great job of quarterbacking city government," Schmand said.

But East Side activist Rosa Gibson says there also have been some fumbles. Gibson said she voted for Brown based on his pledge to improve accountability and to implement a zero-tolerance approach to crime.

Gibson doesn't think Brown has lived up to either promise.

"Every time I pick up the paper, someone is getting killed," she said. "If there's zero tolerance, why do we have so many murders?"

Buffalo's homicide rate is up 30 percent from a year ago. Violent crime in general is up 3 percent, although overall crime is down 7 percent.

"I've been very frustrated with the spike in homicides," Brown said. "We plan on using every resource available to stop the violent criminal."

Brown thinks plans to install surveillance cameras that can zero in on the sound of gunfire, initiate a gun buyback program, reinstitute a youth court and launch new community outreach efforts will reduce crime.

Speaking of community outreach, Brown insists his administration is accessible to residents and will become more so in the coming year. He points to a new Citizen Participation Academy, improved customer service, a crime tip line and a new policy that lets people submit questions to the CitiStat accountability panel.

But Gibson has another way to measure accessibility. As head of the not-for-profit Community Action Information Center, she has never been shy about visiting mayors -- even unannounced.

She said she was dismayed this summer when she went to Brown's office for the first time and found a police officer standing in the hall. It's part of a new security protocol that includes hallway surveillance cameras.

"I couldn't even get inside the door," she complained. "I've been able to talk to every mayor, even if it was them peeking their heads out for a minute or two."

Some city employees have complained that key decisions are made within the mayor's small inner circle, stifling meaningful dialogue.

Brown calls the criticism baseless, pointing to frequent meetings that bring all commissioners together to air ideas.

And Buffalo's school superintendent said he couldn't be happier with the level of communication he has with the mayor. James A. Williams said he and Brown talk at least a couple times a week. He credits the Brown administration for effectively dealing with issues that range from school security, to the ongoing school modernization program.

"This is the fifth city I've worked in. This is the first where there's truly open dialogue," Williams said.

Housing activist Scott W. Gehl credited the mayor for reaching out to unions and for trying to find a way to lift a wage freeze that Buffalo's control board imposed 32 months ago.

>CitiStat called success

But he is disappointed the mayor signed two laws that Gehl believes are too weak or flawed. One involved Buffalo's first fair-housing law. The other involved a measure that aims to protect neighborhoods from being oversaturated with shelters, soup kitchens and other social services agencies

Brown's relationship with the nine-member Common Council has been generally smooth in his first year. Council Majority Leader Dominic J. Bonifacio Jr. said he doesn't have as much dialogue with Brown as he did with Masiello, but he said both branches of government have vowed to step up communication in the new year.

Bonifacio says CitiStat is one of Brown's important early achievements. The computerized accountability system already has helped to red-flag and correct service delays, he said. And he said he hopes the data that CitiStat is amassing will result in more effective programs to curb crime, blight and graffiti.

"I'm frustrated, because I see the same prostitutes walking the streets, the same drug houses and the same slum properties," Bonifacio said.

Brown says CitiStat, coupled with other new initiatives, is already starting to address some problems.

"I believe our management oversight is better than it has ever been in city government," he said. "CitiStat is literally helping us to transform the culture in the city of Buffalo."


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