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$22 million for projects buoys Buffalo Place

A total of nearly $22 million in city, state and federal funding is pouring into downtown projects, largely for streetscape improvements, new bike lanes and restoring two-way traffic on two streets, Buffalo Place officials told the group's directors Wednesday.

The funds -- much of them intended for future phases of the Cars Sharing Main Street project to restore two-way traffic to Main Street downtown -- represent a large investment in initiatives that supporters say will help with various economic-development efforts.

"It's not often we talk about $22 million being invested in our downtown," said Keith M. Belanger, board chairman of Buffalo Place, the downtown business-improvement district. "It'll have a nice impact."

The recently awarded funds include $4 million out of the $100 million that Empire State Development Corp. just awarded to the five-county Western New York region.

That's part of a much broader strategic plan involving 96 regional projects, advanced by ESD's Western New York Regional Development Council and praised by the state as one of the "best" plans among 10 regions.

"It was very rewarding to be recognized for having put forth this plan," Howard A. Zemsky, co-chairman of the Western New York regional council, told the Buffalo Place board, of which he is also a member. "I think our whole council is excited."

The money, awarded to the city, will be used for "economic advancement" of the central business district in Buffalo, including streetscape improvements and a bike path lane on Main Street from Goodell to North streets, as well as streetscape work around the Genesee Gateway.

"I've lived here for 30 years, and I've seen lots of administrations in Albany," Zemsky said. "The way this administration has taken a key interest in Western New York, the communication we have there, is so much more encouraging to me. It's a sea change from anything I have seen in economic development in years."

The new funding also includes $15 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation's TIGER grant -- Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery -- to the city for the next phase of the Cars Sharing Main Street project.

That portion of the Main Street project calls for restoring traffic to the 500 block, between Chippewa and Mohawk streets. Some money may also be used for lower Main, in the Canalside area. Traffic has already been restored to the 700 block, and funding and plans are in place for the 600 block.

Another $1.928 million from the city's capital budget will be divided between the Main Street initiative and a conversion of Pearl Street to two-way traffic.

Of that, $428,000 will be a local match to an existing $8 million grant for the 600 block of Main, while the bulk will be used for the first phase of Pearl between Tupper and Church streets, including a bike lane and streetscape improvements on Chippewa. Plans call for the bike paths to be separately striped, and to extend ultimately to the harbor, said Debra L. Chernoff, Buffalo Place manager of planning.

The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is giving $400,000 to Shea's Performing Arts Center for restoration of the interior ceilings, walls and facades.

And the state Housing Trust Fund is awarding $500,000 to Buffalo Place for the Theater District program, in which money will be used to restore and renovate buildings in that area for commercial or residential use.

Specifically, the grant provides up to $50,000 for restoring a lower floor or building facade for commercial use, or $25,000 per unit up to $125,000 per building for conversion to affordable housing. A similar grant was used in the 500 block of Main.

"This was a very competitive grant," said Buffalo Place Executive Director Michael T. Schmand. "And it did make a difference in the 500 block."

Barbara Miller-Williams, the departing Erie County Legislature chairwoman who lost her re-election bid in November, said she hoped the grants will enable the city to reallocate some funds back into neighborhoods and small businesses.

"I'm hoping that some of these dollars can be shifted in another direction," said Miller-Williams, who sat on the Buffalo Place board as the county representative for the district. "With this influx of these dollars, it's going to encourage economic development."