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Chorus of hope backs Brown’s State of the City speech

Kathy Hochul, the lieutenant governor, was there. So was Howard A. Zemsky, the state development guru. Even Mary Wilson, widow of the former Buffalo Bills owner.

Students from the Buffalo Academy of the Visual and Performing Arts sang a breathtaking rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner to open the event, which people sitting in the back of the huge Buffalo Niagara Convention Center banquet room could see on a big screen.

You would have thought Bruce Springsteen or the Bills was the draw.

Instead, it was Byron W. Brown, Buffalo’s 58th mayor, outlining his plans for the new year.

Starting his 11th year in office, Brown seemed to get a sort of rock star treatment at his State of the City speech Friday, addressing a record-setting crowd of almost 1,700 that offered a standing ovation when he addressed the gathering.

“The state of our city,” Brown told the group, “is strong.”

But that’s not good enough, he said.

“I want more. We must do more. We can do more,” he said. “We will not be stopped.”

Brown’s 55-minute speech was filled with highlights and challenges from his 10 years in office, referencing, for example, the hard control board and lousy bond rating the city had when he took office in 2006.

Brown spoke of the tax cuts, and strategic planning his administration pursued in the ensuing years, as the hard control board dissolved and the city’s bond rating continued improving.

And he offered a blueprint of what he’s planning for the upcoming year. Those plans include a property tax freeze, a new downtown supermarket, a more aggressive approach to abandoned houses, and a string of initiatives to support struggling city school students as well as Say Yes scholars.

The mayor also spoke of additional investment in the Northland Corridor commercial redevelopment project to help create new jobs and training in the city, which, despite its recent successes, still has a 30 percent poverty rate.

Brown announced iPads will be issued to all on-duty police, an incentive program is being created to help boost recycling and said the Beverly Gray Business Exchange Center will open on East Utica Street to serve women and minority-owned businesses.

The mayor also said the Buffalo Zoo will get 150 more parking spots and a historic carousel will be coming to the waterfront.

But interspersed with the business at hand was a bit of pomp and circumstance, including video clips from his past State of the City speeches on two large screens as he spoke, recognition of political figures in the room including Hochul, Rep. Brian Higgins and Court of Appeals Judge Eugene F. Fahey; a lunch menu that included white and dark chocolate mousse cake for dessert, and even a key to the city posthumously awarded to longtime Bills owner Ralph Wilson. The award was accepted by his wife, Mary.

“Ralph Wilson was one of our city’s greatest champions,” Brown said. “His integrity exemplified our values. His passion inspired our loyalty.”

Wilson’s widow said, “Ralph introduced me to football and Buffalo, and I fell in love with both. Ralph would be honored and humbled to receive this honor.” The crowd stood up in respect as she spoke.

Brown’s State of the City addresses have become more and more popular in recent years, as the city’s fortunes have continued to improve.

An estimated 1,200 came to the 2015 luncheon speech, which, at the time, was said to be the largest attendance ever.

This year, the attendance was closer to 1,700. There were people buying tickets – $50 each – right up to noon Friday.

“This has a become the hottest ticket in Western New York,” the mayor commented.

In fact, convention center staff said Friday’s event was the largest sit-down event ever served at the facility.

Brown said any proceeds from ticket sales will go to fund summer youth and other job readiness programs.

“The best is yet to come,” Brown then announced, bringing an end to his 10th State of the City speech.