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A look ahead at 2011's top stories ; New year will bring crucial decisions about leadership, education, downtown

"The future," Yogi Berra once said, "ain't what it used to be."

For Western New York, the future that is 2011 is expected to have a familiar mix of hopefulness and dread, tragedy mixed with promise.

Here are the top local stories expected to occur in this new year.

*UB gets a new president.

John Simpson, who has led the university since Jan. 1, 2004, will retire on Jan. 15 with the search for his successor already well under way.

No timetable has been established for UB to get its 15th president -- an interim leader still has not been chosen -- but it seems likely that it will happen before 2011 is a memory. Whoever takes over for Simpson will have to decide what to do about UB 2020, the expansion plan that Simpson saw as an economic engine that could drive the institution and the region into the future, but which stalled in Albany.

*New federal courthouse opens.

The most expensive government building in Western New York history is taking shape and is expected to open this year.

The sleek, modernistic, glass-encased 10-story building is now expected to open sometime after June 1, according to William M. Skretny, the region's chief federal judge.

June is the latest of several planned opening dates. When construction began in October 2007, federal officials hoped to have it open in July 2010. The projected opening date was pushed back to February 2011, then spring 2011 and now -- due to some recent water damage to the interior of the building -- to at least June, Skretny said.

*Sabres get a new owner.

A new era is expected to begin sometime this year when billionaire businessman and Sabres fan Terry Pegula becomes the fourth owner in the team's history.

B. Thomas Golisano, who rescued the franchise from bankruptcy and oversaw one of the most exciting periods in the team's history, is said to have accepted Pegula's offer of $175 million.

Pegula, who donated $88 million to Penn State University for a new hockey arena, is committed to the two things that should make him a hero to Sabres fans: keeping the team in Buffalo and winning a Stanley Cup.

*The year of reckoning for school districts.

Will the bill finally come due this year? School leaders already are bracing for a budget season unlike any they have ever experienced, with the economy still struggling, mandated costs continuing to skyrocket and no stimulus aid coming from the federal government.

Suburban districts have begun sounding the alarm about higher tax bills to weary property owners. Budget problems led to cutbacks, layoffs and school closings last year. Officials believe 2011 will bring more of the same and worse.

*Future of downtown could hinge on HSBC's decision for tower.

The banking giant is expected to decide early in the year whether it plans to stay in its current home after its lease runs out in 2013.

If HSBC chooses to leave, the effects could devastate downtown -- "a real estate tsunami," as developer Rocco Termini described it earlier this week.

HSBC has an option on property on the Webster Block closer to the waterfront, and could build a new home, but city officials are hoping they can come up with a way to keep the bank -- and its 4,000 employees -- right where it is.

*Chris Collins runs for re-election; every Legislature seat up for grabs.

Nov. 8 will be a referendum on the county executive, who is expected to seek re-election to a second four-year term. Voters will tell him what they think of his approach to governing, which his supporters would call businesslike with an eye toward the bottom line, and his detractors would call brutalizing without care for the effects of budget cuts.

The two people most likely to force Collins to defend himself during the campaign are County Clerk Kathy Hochul and County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz.

The same day will also see the first County Legislature election since the erstwhile 15-member body was downsized to 11. The results, coupled with the outcome of the county executive race, will determine whether the county continues down the path Collins has laid out or if a new direction is in our collective future.

*Key Peace Bridge decision comes.

The Peace Bridge Authority expects to submit to City Hall for approval in 2011 a final environmental impact statement that spells out the plan for a companion bridge and also a design for the U.S. plaza. Some 108 properties are needed from the West Side neighborhood to build the proposed plaza.

If the Common Council approves the project after receiving the document -- and that prospect is far from certain -- the authority would seek federal approval to start the project.

*Riccardo McCray stands trial in the City Grill Massacre.

The 23-year-old man accused of perpetrating one of the most violent crimes in the city's history will be judged in a courtroom in 2011.

If McCray is found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder for the Aug. 14 deaths of four people, Danyell Mackin, 30; Willie McCaa, 26; Tiffany Wilhite, 32; and Shawntia McNeil, 27, he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

*Mo Hassan stands trial for the 2009 murder of his wife.

He was once a respected businessman who started a cable television station with his wife in Orchard Park.

That image came to shocking end in 2009, when police say Muzzammil S. "Mo" Hassan beheaded his estranged wife Aasiya Zubair Hassan in that same station. Although Hassan has insisted in letters, interviews and court appearances that he was a battered spouse, prosecutors are expected to present evidence that he beat, harassed and tortured his wife for years before she finally decided to leave him, which led to their fatal final encounter.

*The loss of a congressional seat.

The reapportionment process after the 2010 census will loom large. Western New York is expected to lose a congressional seat in redistricting, meaning one of the four who now represent the area -- Brian Higgins, Chris Lee, Louise Slaughter or Thomas Reed -- could be out of a job in a couple years.

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