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Keep politics out; City should have a role, not ownership, of NFTA's outer harbor property

It is perhaps understandable that the City of Buffalo wants to be a player in the development of the outer harbor. It is also an idea that should be approached carefully and skeptically. The bottom line has to be based on what is best for the city and the people who will use the harbor, not what is best for City Hall.

Mayor Byron W. Brown says that the city would like to be involved in the discussions about developing the outer harbor, citing its decades of experience in leasing the city-owned Erie Basin Marina to private developers. That would seem to provide some level of useful experience, though the city is only the lessor; it is private companies doing the work.

We're not sure how the city would exert its influence here. If it is just going to hire a developer, someone else could handle that role; if it plans to take a hands-on approach, other organizations have greater expertise. It notes that it can finance multimillion-dollar projects to dredge the Small Boat Harbor and rebuild its breakwater but, again, if another entity can also finance that kind of work, the city could put its money into other public projects.

Still, the city has an obvious interest in development of its waterfront and its overtures should be welcomed, but with a clear eye on the risks -- namely that the harbor project could become a municipal patronage pit. The more that politics can be kept out of this project, the better off everyone will be.

Whatever the city's case, it is likely to have stiff competition, principally from the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., whose mission is self-explanatory and plainly in harmony with what is needed at the outer harbor. Brown expressed concern that the corporation should retain its focus on inner harbor development, but it could as easily be argued that the city should be paying attention to crime and fire protection.

Indeed, focus on mission is a key concept in this project. The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is seeking to sell its stake in the outer harbor in part because it does not jibe with the authority's role. It owns the land because it was once the Niagara Frontier Port Authority, but its ownership of that land is a vestige of a long-ago time. It needs to concentrate on transportation, not waterfront development, so it is looking to transfer the land to a suitable successor.

The Harbor Development Corp. is the obvious candidate -- one whose mission is already tailored to the outer harbor's need. And, as incoming NFTA Chairman Howard Zemsky observed, "There's something to be said about contiguous parcels of the inner harbor and outer harbor being planned in a way that's coherent." Not just something, we'd add, but something obvious.

Still, Zemsky properly welcomed the city's interest, and it is possible the Brown administration can justify a formal role in planning and developing the outer harbor. It certainly is entitled to make that case. But the final decision needs to be based on the merits, which include efficient use of public money, transparency and expert management. The edge, at this point, has to go to the Harbor Development Corp.