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Buffalo fans breathe a sigh of relief

The past 12 months of news have given us many things to cheer, marvel, scream and cry about. From the new ownership of the Buffalo Bills and crazy snowstorms to the leadership turmoil afflicting Hamburg schools, 2014 was a year of hot topics and conversation. ¶ The Top 10 local stories of the year were selected and ranked based on ballots cast by newsroom staff. ¶ A few strong contenders failed to make the Top 10 list but were worthy honorable mentions: the growth and popularity of the Buffalo waterfront, full state funding of the Buffalo Billion, and the state-mandated reforms of Child Protective Services in light of the tragic killings of two children at the hands of their guardians. ¶ These stories, however, were overshadowed by others that have riveted the attention of the Western New York community. Here are our Top 10 local stories of 2014:

1. New era for the Bills

The death of Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. in March triggered a cascade of news this year. The death of Wilson, the most influential sports figure the region has ever known, sparked reflections on his 55-year legacy, the hunt for a new owner for the team and discussions about a new stadium.

That was followed by cheers and sighs of relief in September following the selection of Terry and Kim Pegula, owners of the Buffalo Sabres, as the Bills’ new owners, after they agreed to pay $1.4 billion for the team.

2. Snowstorm central

Mother Nature showed Buffalo no mercy this year. Record-setting snowstorms came in pairs. First, there were the two blizzards in January and March, which closed the Thruway and sent blinding wind gusts of up to 50 mph through the region.

Then came the killer, back-to-back lake-effect storms in November that dumped as much as 7 feet of snow on some parts of the region, resulting in the deaths of 14 people and spawning many stories of heroic rescues and heartbreaking tragedies.

3. Catholic school closures

In January, the Diocese of Buffalo announced the closure of 10 suburban Catholic schools in Erie County as the result of ongoing enrollment declines. The closings resulted in the displacement of 1,154 students and 195 teachers and staff, as well as plenty of shock, disappointment and tears.

4. Buffalo school leadership struggles

State and community dissatisfaction with the leadership of Buffalo Public Schools resulted in the record turnout for this year’s School Board elections; the rise of a new, reform-minded board majority; and the forced resignation of Superintendent Pamela Brown. The appointment of interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie and discord among the bitterly divided board has done little to ensure the future stability of the district.

5. RiverBend project expansion

The region’s hopes of becoming a big player in the solar energy industry gained a much bigger foothold when SolarCity, the nation’s biggest installer of residential solar energy systems, acquired Silevo, a California solar panel manufacturer New York State had tapped as one of the first tenants in the South Buffalo RiverBend complex. Silevo’s resulting expansion promises to bring 2,900 jobs to the region.

6. HarborCenter opens

The Pegulas’ $200 million HarborCenter project has created a downtown sports and athletics entertainment hub – with rinks, ramps and restaurants – from a former parking lot facing First Niagara Center. Most of the privately funded facility’s operations opened this fall, with the Marriott hotel opening in 2015. The complex has already drawn international hockey tournaments and the NHL’s scouting combine.

7. Jim Kelly’s health struggles

Jim Kelly’s much-publicized battle with cancer rallied tremendous community support over the past year, with many touting the phrase “Kelly Strong” in tribute to the famed Buffalo Bills quarterback. In March, Kelly was diagnosed with cancer again, nine months after having surgery to remove cancer from his mouth and jaw. He was in remission by September but suffered a MRSA infection in November.

8. Death of Molly’s Pub patron

In a case that continues to draw scrutiny, Jeffrey Basil, manager of Molly’s Pub in University Heights, stands accused of beating patron William Sager and pushing him down a flight of stairs in May, causing brain injuries that led to his death. Two off-duty police officers witnessed the incident and removed the unconscious Sager from the bar, resulting in the police chief banning officers from working directly for bar owners.

9. Banner year in politics

Interesting and strange things happened in Western New York politics this year. Former Hamburg congresswoman and county clerk Kathy Hochul won election as the state’s new lieutenant governor. Record spending in a State Senate race unseated incumbent Mark Grisanti. Fellow State Sen. George Maziarz announced his retirement plans after his campaign funds came under federal investigation, and Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak resigned in January amid sexual harassment claims by staffers.

10. Hamburg school leadership controversies

Soap opera storylines continue in Hamburg Central Schools. After Superintendent Richard E. Jetter accused anonymous vandals of damaging his car and leaving a note calling him a “sleazebag,” he confessed in July to damaging the car himself. He got a $102,000 district payout in exchange for his resignation.

Meanwhile, the School Board voted to oust member Catherine Schrauth Forcucci on misconduct charges in September, but she is fighting to reverse the decision.

email: stan@buffnews.com