How will Buffalo’s waterfront be reshaped even further?
Who will be Erie County’s next district attorney?
Will new efforts to improve failing city schools and raise student performance succeed?
Those questions and many others across the area’s political, medical, social, educational and environmental landscape will be answered, or at least debated, in 2016 – a presidential election year that’s expected to bring with it even more intense scrutiny than usual to local, state, national and international issues. And yet strangely, in New York, the race for president could be “trumped,” if you will, by the potential for more fallout from investigations into state political corruption. Beyond politics, Western New York will see the closings of coal-fired power plants and a renewed focus on cleaning up Scajaquada Creek; digital-age upgrades to the Buffalo police force; and the introduction of marijuana into the realm of legalized prescription drugs. Here’s a little more detail about what’s to come in the new year.
Race for county prosecutor
With Frank A. Sedita III resigning as Erie County district attorney to become a State Supreme Court justice, voters will elect a new top prosecutor in November. Already in the race is Michael J. Flaherty Jr., who served as Sedita’s top assistant and will run the DA’s Office in the interim, unless Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo replaces him.
Another Democrat expected to campaign is Thomas P. Franczyk, a County Court judge whose résumé includes several years as an assistant district attorney and then a bureau chief on the DA’s staff. Other Democrats might join the fracas.
The county’s Republican chairman says his party seeks a candidate, but a GOP enrollee has not sought the office for years.
All state legislative seats will be up for re-election in November, and the big fight again will be for control of the Senate to see if Republicans can hold onto power. The presidential election year is expected to drive more Democratic voters in this blue state to the polls. The canary: The coming April special election to fill the Nassau County seat of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, convicted in December of various corruption charges and immediately ousted from office.
The Preet shadow
Look for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to be the unofficial fourth-man-in-a-room at the Capitol as he and his team of prosecutors keep their anti-corruption focus on Albany. His vows for people to “stay tuned” to his work have proved accurate over the past year. Now, with the recent convictions of Sheldon Silver and Skelos, officials in both parties wonder what or who is next on his plate.
Will his investigations of the Cuomo administration lead anywhere? Will his ongoing probe of the administration’s Buffalo Billion economic development program find nothing criminal at play or problems in how the initiative was run?
January is the scheduled start date of a new program in which state-approved dispensaries are supposed to start providing marijuana to eligible patients under strict guidelines. The questions are many for 2016: Will supply meet demand and will the drug’s quality be assured across the different growth and dispensing sites? Are there enough physicians enrolled to oversee who does and doesn’t get access to the drug? Are the dispensing sites too close together to make it difficult for patients, especially those in rural areas, to get access? And, of course, will the drug have the touted effects that backers advertise, everything from reducing pain to improving appetite for cancer patients on chemotherapy?
State Regents at crossroads
Educators across the state will be watching to see how the State Legislature and Board of Regents move forward with changes to rules governing teacher evaluations.
In the coming year, potential changes to both the standarized tests and teacher evaluation criteria will become more apparent.
Who holds seats on the Board of Regents will be key. Merryl Tisch and at least one other reform-oriented member are declining to seek another term, so the State Legislature will appoint two new members, and given New York State United Teachers’ influence in Albany, it is likely the new board will favor union policies.
Buffalo schools overhaul
Both newly appointed State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Buffalo Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash have promised an overhaul of the district’s most struggling schools, and a new receivership law grants them powers to make changes that circumvent the union contract.
Those changes could include lengthening the school day, revamping classroom programs and even reassigning staff.
Still, those actions also depend on the outcome of a legal challenge filed by New York State United Teachers, which says the receivership law contradicts long-standing labor rules.
The next School Board election is in May, and with six seats up for grabs, various forces are already jockeying for power. It’s entirely possible the makeup of the board – and who holds the majority – will change.
Who’s coming to Canalside?
This could be the year decisions are made to attract tenants to Canalside, and, the thinking goes, to add vibrancy.
The City of Buffalo plans to issue a request for proposals in the early part of the year for developers on up to 4 acres of land bounded by Main Street, Marine Drive and Prime Street. The city hopes to see stores, restaurants, cultural tenants and even housing and offices.
Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. plans to follow suit later in the year by putting out an RFP for two undeveloped acres on the former Memorial Auditorium site, north of the new canal.
A decision on an exact location for a historic carousel – for which supporters have raised funds to buy and restore – is also expected early in the year.
Work on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus will progress on two of the region’s largest construction projects, the Oishei Children’s Hospital and the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Both are scheduled for completion in 2017.
And the first occupants of Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s Clinical Sciences Center, the first clinical expansion at the cancer hospital since 1998, should arrive in the spring.
Recreational improvements and a company to oversee events and concessions are on tap for the Outer Harbor in 2016.
A bike path is expected to complete the Greenbelt’s southern loop, and a mountain bike course is being created in an area bounded by the Bell Slip, Lake Erie and Fuhrmann Boulevard. A visitor center is expected to open at the Bell Slip in 2016, and there will be a paved pathway from where the Queen City Ferry deposits people on out to Fuhrmann Boulevard.
B.R. Guest Ltd., a subsidiary of Rich Products, will begin its first year of programming on the Outer Harbor. Events could include concerts, festivals, water sports, cross-country skiing and movie nights.
Test for legislative leaders
The new year will be the first full-year test of the leadership abilities of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, both of whom came to power in 2015 after the downfalls of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos. Both pledged to run more member-inclusive legislative houses, and talk about wanting to work more with opposition minority parties in the Senate and Assembly.
But each man has far different tasks: Flanagan, operating in a small-conference environment, will be the one responsible for whether Republicans hold onto their Senate majority. Heastie will be tested this year to see if he consolidates power in such a way so as not to alienate a diverse and at-times raucous Democratic conference.
SolarCity to hire 500
Equipment will be installed and workers hired at the SolarCity plant at RiverBend. Some light production is likely to begin in 2016, but full production is not expected to be reached until the second quarter of 2017.
Executives said they expect to hire about 500 people for the plant, with the rest of the 1,400-person workforce to be added in early 2017.
Health Republic inquiry
State regulators will continue to seek answers to what caused the collapse of Health Republic Insurance, the co-op that was the most-popular provider of individual coverage on the NY State of Health insurance exchange in Western New York in 2015.
Two coal-fired power facilities in Western New York will fade away in 2016, taking with them nearly 150 local jobs.
NRG’s Dunkirk power plant was to be mothballed on New Year’s Day and plans continue moving forward to shutter the Huntley Station power plant on the banks of the Niagara River in the Town of Tonawanda on March 1.
Local political leaders were making eleventh-hour pushes to keep the plants operational, including by repowering them with different fuels.
Weather warning system
The new statewide Mesonet Early Warning Weather Detection System is expected to be completed and operational in 2016.
The initiative calls for the creation of 125 weather station sites statewide with aims at strengthening weather forecasting in the state and its ability to notify the public in the event of extreme or life-threatening storms.
The automated weather stations will transfer real-time data to a central headquarters at the State University at Albany.
Fourteen sites were already online this week. The closest to Buffalo is in Waterloo.
With the massive restoration effort to clean up the Buffalo River now in the rearview mirror, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper is narrowing its focus on cleaning up Scajaquada Creek.
Restoration efforts should get a big boost in 2016 thanks to the creek being added to the Niagara River’s federal Area of Concern, which will make the Scajaquada eligible for funds from Washington.
As design and other flood-improvement work continues in downstream locations throughout the Olmsted Parks complex in Buffalo, engineers in Cheektowaga will be at work revamping its plan to mitigate sewage overflows upstream into Scajaquada Creek by targeting tie-ins of sump pumps, downspouts and other illegal connections between stormwater and the sanitary sewer system.
Development once again will dominate the political conversation in Amherst in the new year, but with Democrats gaining a 3-2 advantage on the Town Board, many anticipate that the board will be less friendly to developer interests.
The biggest and perhaps most controversial plan is Mensch Capital Partners’ proposed redevelopment of the former Westwood Country Club site, a 170-acre parcel off North Forest Road in Amherst.
The Town Board in December took action to ratify Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein’s call to pursue all or part of Westwood from Mensch to turn it into a state park through a series of purchases and land swaps.
Property revaluations will also generate headlines and controversy. Revaluations “are always big issues. Nobody wants to see their assessment go up or their taxes go up,” Weinstein said.