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Another lost opportunity for work here

When one door closes, another one opens – depending, of course, on who you know.

For the long-underfunded Outsource Center construction training program, just when it seemed that it might get a shot at government dollars, it became collateral damage in the Buffalo Billion probe because it knew the wrong people.

LPCiminelli – three of whose principals were accused last week of insider dealings – had tapped the Fillmore Avenue center as a minority subcontractor in its bid to manage construction of the state’s $45 million to $50 million Northland Corridor economic-development hub. Their group made the final cut – along with Rhode Island-based Gilbane Building, which was recommended by a screening committee – and they might have gotten a second look after the Buffalo Urban Development Corp. tabled a decision last month when some board members pressed an obvious point: Public dollars should generate profits for companies based here, not elsewhere.

But any faint hope no doubt evaporated with Louis Ciminelli’s arrest.

BUDC board member and Common Council President Darius Pridgen, who pushed the “local preference” issue, had said he wanted to reform the selection process, not push any particular firm. Buffalo Niagara Partnership President and CEO Dottie Gallagher-Cohen also had questioned “sending that money out of town instead of improving our own economy.”

But on Tuesday, after a presentation by Gilbane and a cast of thousands – to demonstrate its local partners – it got the contract. That left Outsource Center founder Spencer Gaskin, who watched the vote, on the outside looking in – again. Or maybe not.

Gilbane executives later said that there will be other opportunities for firms run by minorities and women and took his information, leaving Gaskin hopeful. He traces his call from LPCiminelli to last year’s visit to the center by Buffalo’s Howard Zemsky, the state’s economic-development chief. That’s how things work, and maybe it will work that way with Gilbane.

It should for the center, which has proven its worth on projects such as Hotel @ the Lafayette even as Gaskin has fought with unions, politicians and government agencies. Last year, his painting company – which funds the training center in the near-absence of public dollars – got fined for violating a wage provision he said he was unaware of. He thinks he was ratted out by unions upset because he used his apprentices to underbid companies using union painters.

It has long been an axiom that African-Americans have to dot every “i” better than others, and ignorance is no excuse. But sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know – especially if you’re not part of the old boy network – until those who do know blow you in. Undeterred, Gaskin keeps training young blacks.

Gilbane impressed the BUDC with its roster of local subcontractors, headlined by a firm led by former Buffalo Bills great Thurman Thomas, who wants to get involved in the community. That’s commendable. But it’s not the same as a facility that sprang organically from the community.

Gilbane’s promise of future opportunities is one of those “right thing to say” responses that may or may not mean anything. But if Buffalo’s renaissance is to really seep deep into the African-American community, it had better, because places like the Outsource Center need to be part of it.


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