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Higgins critical of state agency that oversees waterfront

Rep. Brian Higgins was instrumental in the formation of the state agency that oversees the waterfront, and later recommended that Robert Gioia and Tom Dee be named leaders of the agency.

But the South Buffalo Democrat has now become critical of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and its culture. He said he feels marginalized and wonders if the agency has outlived its usefulness.

“ECHDC has shown of late that they may be reaching the end of their useful life,” Higgins told The Buffalo News.

He claims the organization has become too insular and doesn’t welcome ideas that aren’t its own.

“ECHDC has changed to a point that it does not accept public input as constructive and well intentioned,” Higgins said. “It is an agency that seeks to marginalize anybody that doesn’t agree with them 100 percent.”

The agency has drawn praise for its central role in developing Canalside, the 20-acre downtown site that has become synonymous with Buffalo’s resurgence.

Higgins’ involvement on the waterfront has also been overshadowed in recent years by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who often is credited by the state agency for its waterfront accomplishments.

Gioia, chairman of the state agency, said he was at a loss to understand Higgins’ criticisms. The congressman has not complained directly to him, he said.

“I feel badly if Brian Higgins feels marginalized, but I don’t know why,” Gioia said. “The last time I read, we were in this together.”

Gioia said he and the agency meet with people concerned about the waterfront all the time. He said they need that input to make decisions the public wants and will embrace.

The agency chairman said he’s “perplexed and puzzled” over the criticism with so much good news surrounding the waterfront, including summer attendance numbers recently released that claimed there were 1.5 million visitors at Canalside and 250,000 at the Outer Harbor.

“Don’t we all have the same goals in mind?” Gioia said. “Why don’t we try to work together, pick up the phone and say lets talk about this?”

Higgins said he has grown increasingly disillusioned with what the agency is doing.

“As first conceived, ECHDC was to encourage citizen input in spending $279 million in New York Power Authority settlement funding to make a new waterfront,” Higgins said. “ECHDC was to be a catalyst for development – a starting point, not an end point.”

The agency works under Cuomo, but the congressman is quick to make a distinction between the person at the top and those who serve under him.

“This is not Erie Canal Harbor and the governor against the local community,” Higgins said. “I know from direct, personal experience that Gov. Andrew Cuomo always does right for Buffalo.”

Higgins said the governor proved that when he designated Buffalo’s first state park, now on the Outer Harbor.

“ECHDC planned to allow the NFTA to continue their 60-year stranglehold on the Outer Harbor,” Higgins said. “It was (Cuomo) who called them out three years ago, and forced ECHDC to change direction. Because of him, we have a new state park without parking fees on Buffalo’s waterfront.”

That’s not correct, said Sam Hoyt, regional president of Empire State Development, Erie Canal Harbor’s parent organization.

“With all due respect to the congressman, Erie Canal Harbor supported the transfer of the 400 acres from NFTA to Erie Canal Harbor Development,” Hoyt said.

While Higgins speaks highly of Cuomo, those good feelings don’t extend to the waterfront agency’s leadership.

He bristled at the reference by Gioia in 2015 to critics of the agency’s since-shelved plan for the Outer Harbor.

“The characterization of those who dared to be critical of building 2,100 units of housing on Wilkeson Pointe, and a museum district, was ‘carnival barkers.’ Carnival barkers,” Higgins said.

Higgins also feels more should be happening on the Outer Harbor, which was taken in ownership by the agency in 2014.

“They took their ball and went home and said (forget) that, nothing’s going to happen out there,” said Higgins, after the agency’s development-heavy plan was roundly criticized and then abandoned.

Higgins said progress has stalled as a result.

“I’m baffled at the claim that we haven’t done very much,” Hoyt said.

In the past two years, he said, Erie Canal Harbor, its parent Empire State Development and the state parks department have made large investments in the Outer Harbor.

Hoyt pointed to the popularity of Wilkeson Pointe, the agency-created park, which this summer offered food and beverages, bike and kayak rentals, fitness classes and special events. He also pointed to the daily illumination of the Connecting Terminal grain elevator on the Outer Harbor, the bike ferry and new scenic landing spot, and coming projects that include new bike trails, a visitor center at the Bell Slip and enhancements at the Michigan Pier.

Hoyt said the state agency received $5 million from the Buffalo Billion initiative for the improvements, thanks to the governor’s support.

“In recent years, Andrew Cuomo has become the leading figure on waterfront development in Buffalo, and deservedly has received a lot of attention for his work,” Hoyt said.

Hoyt said he also was perplexed by Higgins’ criticisms.

“I am surprised because we consider Brian and his office great partners with Gov. Cuomo and Erie Canal Harbor when it comes to everything on the waterfront,” Hoyt said. “The entire region should be grateful for his efforts during the relicensing of the power project,” Hoyt said.

Higgins said he wasn’t sure what he wanted to see happen next. Calling the governor, he said, was one option.

“I don’t really know, but we need a change – at the very least, in attitude about local inclusiveness,” Higgins said. “Whether it leads to a change in ECHDC as it currently exists, I’m not quite sure.”

email: msommer@buffnews.com

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