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Upgrade of Wiley about to begin Sports facility grant finally will be spent

The federal government formally approved $2 million for the Johnnie B. Wiley Amateur Athletic Sports Pavilion.

That was 17 years ago.

Now, finally, the city is on the verge of spending the money on the worn-down athletic facility, located in one of the neediest neighborhoods in the third-poorest city in the country.

The decision comes 18 months after the Department of Housing and Urban Development notified the Brown administration of the funds and 2 1/2 weeks after The Buffalo News reported the grant's existence.

An agreement was reached at a Feb. 17 meeting -- which included representatives of the Brown administration, Buffalo Board of Education, Buffalo Bisons, New Era Cap and Rich Products -- on how to spend the $2 million on the site of the former War Memorial Stadium, known as "the Rockpile."

"Everyone in the meeting felt that, in the end, we all want this to be a first-class facility," said Ted Fyda, an associate architect for the Board of Education. "We're partnering to find a way to get this done."

The meeting came on the heels of a recently concluded study by DiDonato Associates, which put a $4 million price tag on turning the Wiley Pavilion into a top-notch facility.

Beginning this summer, the $2 million HUD grant, along with a $200,000 grant last year from the Buffalo office of the Local Initiative Support Corp. and NFL Charities, is expected to be used to install a new drainage system, outfield fence, scoreboard and infield turf on the baseball field.

In addition, a new drainage system and artificial turf will be applied to the football/soccer field. The all-weather running track will be refurbished, and improvements will be made to the heating, ventilation and lighting systems in the locker rooms, Fyda said.

Still on the Wiley baseball stadium checklist are dugouts, grandstands, a public address system and lighting.

The Buffalo Bisons made a commitment in 2007 to provide significant funding to improve Wiley Pavilion, but Jonathan Dandes, Bisons president, and team owners Bob and Mindy Rich have said they will contribute only if someone takes full responsibility for maintaining everything from striping chalk lines to cleaning locker rooms.

Peter Cutler, spokesman for Mayor Byron W. Brown, says progress is being made to develop a plan that should satisfy the Bisons' concerns.

The goal, he said, is to have stadium operations shared among the city, Board of Education and a reconstituted board of directors required by the City Charter. The Board of Education, which has taken care of the facility the past two years, would be formally put in charge of its upkeep.

That can only occur, Cutler said, after resolution of the parks agreement with the county, which expires June 1.

"Clearly, once that matter is resolved, we'll . . . effect a formal agreement with the Board of Education over operation and maintenance of Johnnie B. Wiley," Cutler said.

Dandes said that arrangement would satisfy his concerns.

"If the board is going to accept responsibility for the ongoing maintenance of the ballpark and that gets resolved, I'll be thrilled," he said.

Last Friday, Brown met with members of the Johnnie B. Wiley Community Participation Board, including Joann Wiley, daughter of the late Johnnie B. Wiley. The mayor told them he would work to restore the facility and return it under city control, Wiley said.

On the same day, Steven J. Stepniak, the city's public works commissioner, and a work crew visited the two tower buildings on Jefferson Avenue, where residents have complained of broken windows and other unmet repairs in buildings that offer educational opportunities for youth, including computer training.

Stepniak said needed repairs will be made.

Many community members, like Dorothy Hill, director of the Langston Hughes Institute and a former Wiley board member, need some convincing. After learning about the unused $2 million, Hill said, her shock gave way to outrage.

"It's unconscionable. You know what the president said about the Wall Street bonuses, and how it was shameful? This is more than shameful," Hill said. "You're talking about children in the third-poorest city in the nation, in one of the poorest neighborhoods. Here is where young people could have been involved in sports and learning."

Kenneth Simmons, an amateur sports baseball commissioner, says he will believe the changes when he sees them.

Last year, Simmons was forced to move games to Walden Park.

The reason?

The abysmal condition of what many consider hallowed baseball ground.

"My baseball league has played there since 2000. We haven't seen one improvement. It's getting worse and more worse," Simmons said.

"There are craters in the field, you have grass growing on the diamond, and the drainage system is so bad that if you get a rainstorm, you can't play for at least a week."

Lack of nearby restrooms is also a problem.

Simmons said he's embarrassed to have teams from other neighborhoods come into the stadium at Jefferson Avenue and Best Street. He blames government neglect on its location in a black neighborhood.

George K. Arthur, former chairman of the Common Council, agrees.

"There is absolutely no reason for that stadium to be in the condition that it is in today, and for it not to be fully utilized 365 days out of a year," he said.

The application for the $2 million HUD grant was signed in March 1992 by then-Mayor James D. Griffin and pushed in Washington by then-Rep. Henry Nowak. It originally was to be used to build an $8.3 million "War Memorial Field House" that would provide a gymnasium, pool and community rooms.

The "special purpose grant" was approved that September, but the paperwork wasn't finalized until March 9, 1995, under a new mayor, Anthony M. Masiello.

Arthur, who was in his last year as Common Council president, thinks politicians simply lost track of the funds.

"That park was switching Council districts, and that contributed to nobody minding the store," Arthur said.

Barbara Miller-Williams, an Erie County legislator who was Ellicott District Council member from 1995 to 2002, said she tracked down the funds around 1997 and brought them to Masiello's attention.

In 1997, Delta Sonic Car Wash established a $2 million endowment fund, with the interest used to support athletic programs at the Wiley complex. That has amounted to an average of $50,000 to $75,000 annually, according to Brett Benderson of Benderson Development Co., which owns Delta Sonic.

But the $2 million HUD grant went unused. Stephen Banko, communications director under Masiello and now director of HUD's Buffalo field office, said the federal agency lost track of the money because the funding category was moved into a different HUD division just as the city was transitioning from one mayor to another.
A $2 million HUD grant lost for so many years, he said, "has never happened before."

It wasn't until an intern was asked in 2007 to go through old files to make sure they were properly closed that the unspent $2 million grant was found, and the city was notified.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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