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Corruption trials, removal of Island toll booths to make headlines in 2018

Get ready for 2018, a year that will be full of news in Western New York.

Looking into our crystal ball, we predict there will be scandalous trials, smiles on the faces of motorists approaching Grand Island, a governor running for re-election with perhaps one eye on the White House, the rebirth of a few Amherst shopping hotspots, a fight over casino dollars and some new sidewalks in the suburbs.

Here's what you can expect:

Year of corruption trials 

It will be the Year of Corruption Trials for Albany. The first half of the year will be taken up with a dizzying array of trials – on charges ranging from bribery to election law violations. Republicans and Democrats, including people who have been extremely close to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo over the years, are defendants.

The court action kicks off in early January with the trial of several people involved in alleged conspiracy schemes, including Joseph Percoco, the longtime friend and adviser to Cuomo. His arrest started with the Buffalo Billion probe by former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

February will see former Sen. George Maziarz, the onetime ruler of Niagara County GOP affairs, go before a state judge for a trial on charges he violated state election laws.

April is the scheduled date for the re-trial of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was convicted of getting rich by using the power of his office. That conviction was overturned when the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the definition of public corruption.

In June, a two-fer. First up, on June 11, is the Buffalo Billion trial. Defendants include Louis Ciminelli, the former head of LP Ciminelli,  and Alain Kaloyeros, former president of SUNY Polytechnic Institute. The case involves alleged bid rigging and bribery over the project to build the solar plant at RiverBend.

The following week brings the re-trial of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, whose corruption conviction also was overturned by the Supreme Court.

Goodbye, toll booths

The big story for many motorists will be the tearing down of the Grand Island bridge toll barriers to make way for a cashless tolling system.

There is no exact date set for the toll barriers to be removed, but Cuomo has said the cashless tolling system will be in place by March.

The state has already begun doing some prep work to widen I-190 lanes by the toll booth. Drivers along the I-190 who pass through Grand Island this year will be able to watch the gantries with cameras being erected over the highways.

The 65,000 drivers a day that cross over the bridges will still have to pay the toll to cross, but the state-of-the-art tolling system is expected to ease traffic congestion and reduce accidents because drivers won't have to slow down and merge at the toll booths.

Governor's race

Cuomo's re-election bid will be the most closely watched race in New York and elsewhere. Cuomo has not announced he's seeking a fourth term, but he continues to raise money at a fast clip to dissuade potential opponents.

Cuomo is likely to face a primary challenge from the left of his own party.

How well Cuomo performs in a primary and general election will shape his ability to keep his name alive as a potential White House Democratic candidate in 2020.

Westwood Country Club

The reuse of the Westwood Country Club is one of the largest stories facing Amherst, and the site's fate should become clearer in 2018 after years of debate and controversy.

A group of investors, Mensch Capital Partners, bought the property in 2012, and unveiled their ambitious redevelopment plan two years later. The latest version calls for $250 million worth of housing for 1,700 people, retail and commercial space and parkland.

But the development has stalled in the face of neighborhood opposition and a slow-moving regulatory process.

The Town Board will have three new members, including a new supervisor, and all expressed skepticism about the project during their campaigns. Incoming Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa, for example, has supported the idea of turning the property into a town park with a cultural center.

State Legislature elections

All Senate and Assembly seats are up for election, plus contests for state comptroller and attorney general.

It’s possible that campaign season gets an early start in March if Cuomo calls for a special election to fill the Assembly seat vacated by Democrat Michael P. Kearns, who was elected Erie County clerk on the Republican line back in November. His resignation could spark an all out scramble among interested Democrats for the South Buffalo-based Assembly seat, though it remains uncertain whether the governor will schedule the special election or leave the post vacant until November.

Democrats interested include County Legislator Patrick B. Burke, South Council Member Christopher P. Scanlon, Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski, and Eric Bohen, a Buffalo Public Schools teacher.

The rest of the Senate and Assembly seats throughout the region are expected to remain relatively stable since decades of gerrymandering has succeeded in creating safe seats for the current occupants – both Democrat and Republican.

Two positions for State Supreme Court (now held by Justices Paula L. Feroleto and John M. Curran) will also be on the ballot in 2018, as will the spot now held by Erie County Judge Michael Pietruszka.

Casino dollars

The City of Niagara Falls will face a potential budget disaster in 2018, unless an agreement is reached between the state and the Seneca Nation of Indians over sharing slot machine profits from the Nation's casino in the Falls.

The 2018 city budget uses up almost all of the remaining $12 million left in the city's casino reserve, which represents more than 10 percent of total spending. The Senecas say the original 2002 casino compact provided for only 14 years of payments to the state, which passes some of the money along to Niagara Falls and other localities. The matter is being taken to arbitration.

Niagara Falls is not a party to the compact or the arbitration, but Mayor Paul A. Dyster said he doesn't want to comment on the possibility of making a side deal with the Senecas, saying it would be premature and could undermine the state's position at the arbitration.

"The state slammed the door on dialogue and chose to initiate arbitration," Seneca spokesman Phil Pantano said. "Any speculation about what may occur during arbitration or outside of the arbitration process is purely that – speculation."

Municipalities upstate feel the pinch as Senecas end casino payments

Congressional races

Incumbent Reps. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, and Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, are heavy favorites to reclaim their seats.

Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, is considered a favorite too, but may have to stave off a Democratic challenge that is already taking shape.

Higgins almost certainly will face a Republican opponent even in his heavily Democratic district. Construction executive Roseann DiPizio has already expressed interest.

Collins is also considered the favorite in his district, the most Republican in all of New York, unless controversies attached to his investments in an Australian biotech firm flare into bigger legal troubles. He is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee in connection with his involvement in a firm called Innate Immunotherapeutics.

Three Democrats - attorney Sean Bunny, businessman Nicholas Stankevich and retired engineer Thomas Casey - have announced plans to run for Collins' seat. Another Democrat, Grand Island Supervisor Nathan McMurray, is considering running for the seat.

In addition to the House races, Democratic Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand will appear on the statewide ballot as she runs for a second, six-year term.

Lake Ontario flooding

Property owners along the Lake Ontario shore are wondering if they face another year of flooding, erosion and emergency repairs.

If waters are high – and in December they were a foot higher than at the end of 2016 –  Jonathan F. Schultz, Niagara County emergency management director, wonders if the International Joint Commission will react differently than in 2017, when lake outflows weren't increased until May.

"We're not sure what the water will be, because Plan 2014 is still in effect," Schultz said, referring to the IJC's water-level management policy, blamed by some locals for the high water. The IJC blamed record spring rainfall.

Arun Heer, secretary to the IJC's International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, said outflow policy depends on the amount of ice in the lake. If the flows are too fast, they could trigger ice damage in Montreal and other downstream locations.

"The plan is, maximizing outflows to the extent possible," Heer said.

Lake Ontario flooding pits politicians against scientists

New superintendents and a court case

West Seneca Central School District, which has had three men in the superintendent's seat in less than a year, will have a new superintendent.

After Mark Crawford retired April 28, the district hired Whitney K. Vantine as interim superintendent, who was replaced by Matthew Bystrak, the district's director of pupil personnel, on July 10. The School Board hopes to name a new chief officer in March.

Frontier Central has been without a permanent superintendent since Sept. 1 when Bret Apthorpe left to lead the Jamestown city schools. C. Douglas Whelan was the interim superintendent, and by the end of January, Richard Hughes will lead the district. Hughes comes to the Frontier district after being superintendent of Central Valley School District in Herkimer County.

In Buffalo, Carl P. Paladino, who was kicked off the School Board in August by state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, will have his appeal heard in an Albany courtroom. After a multi-day hearing, Elia removed Paladino for publicly disclosing private information from a board executive session, which happened in the wake of his inflammatory comments about then-President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

Northtown Plaza and Boulevard Mall

Plans for the future of the Northtown Plaza should come into focus in 2018, but shoppers won't be able to start visiting the newest stores until 2019.

In 2017, the venerable outdoor shopping center in Amherst saw its retail tenants clear out, and it saw the area's first Whole Foods Market open on the site. Owner WS Development unveiled plans to construct new retail buildings, along with a common green area where ice skating and other activities can take place. Some retailers have signed leases with WS, including L.L. Bean, Williams Sonoma and West Elm.

In 2018, WS hopes to wrap up the approval process, complete demolition of the old buildings on the site and start construction on the new buildings, with the first new shops opening the following year.

The Boulevard Mall changed hands at the end of 2017, a year marked by significant changes to the region's oldest enclosed shopping center. The new year should bring more of the same.

Forest City Enterprises, based in Cleveland, which has owned the Amherst mall since it was built six decades ago, sold the mall in late November to LNR Partners of Miami Beach, Fla. LNR is the special servicer that held the mortgage on the property on behalf of Wall Street investors, and had been negotiating with Forest City to collect on the troubled loan.

Forest City had defaulted on a balloon payment in February, and the $97 million sale represented the debt remaining on the property. LNR could try to resell the mall in 2018.

Buffalo battles over change

The fight over “inclusionary zoning” in Buffalo will come to a head as community groups press City Hall to make sure that new housing developments include units for low- and moderate-income residents so that they aren’t priced out of the city’s resurgence.  The fight will center on whether such a policy should be mandatory or voluntary, and the percentage of such units to be set aside.

The battle between preservationists and the administration of Mayor Byron W. Brown also will continue over the granting of variances to the city’s new Green Code. And the fight over remaking the Scajaquada Expressway through Delaware Park also will come to a head as community groups oppose a state plan they consider inadequate for turning the area into a parkway.

Work on the Northland Corridor job-training center  is expected to be completed this year, giving an economic boost to the East Side and the residents there who will be trained for today’s jobs in a rebounding Buffalo. The center is one part of a massive complex that also will become an industrial hub.

Amherst Town Board turns blue

All Democrats on the Amherst Town Board? It had never happened in at least half a century.

But on Jan. 1, five Democrats will take their seats on the first all-Democratic Town Board in as long as anyone can remember.

Williamsville Mayor Brian J. Kulpa takes over as supervisor and will join new council members Jacqualine G. Berger and Shawn A. Lavin. During the campaign, they all identified responsible development, protecting green space, traffic and infrastructure and government transparency as priorities.

Will an all-Democratic Town Board favor development in Amherst?

Welcome to WNY 

It will be a busy year for the Town of Grand Island.

Under construction is the $20 million Western New York Welcome Center, which is expected to open in the summer. The project at the Whitehaven Road exit of the I-190 was funded as part of Phase II of the Buffalo Billion.

The center will serve as a welcoming hub for all of Western New York, featuring an "I Love New York" exhibit for visitors to learn more about the region's history and tourism destinations. Regional artifacts, videos and touch screen kiosks will provide information on suggested destinations.

Also, New York State will close to vehicle traffic the West River Parkway, a seasonal state road along the Niagara River in Grand Island in 2018. Instead of accommodating cars, construction will begin to turn the parkway into an 8-mile "West River Connector Trail" for bicyclists, joggers and walkers. The plan has been opposed by some residents, especially those who live near the Parkway, and it was rejected by the Town Board in 2016.

West Seneca to open first-of-its-kind library

The town's newest building, the 35,000-square-foot library and community center, will open in May, serving both bibliophiles and athletes.

The $13 million building, touted as the first of its kind in the state, will have a library, children's area, cafe, gym, community rooms and be home to the town's Recreation Department, town attorney, finance and human resources departments as well as the Chamber of Commerce. The concrete drive-through, where West Seneca's first book drop will be located, will have heating tubes in it to melt the snow.

The West Seneca Library put most of its books into storage, and has been operating out of  a double-wide trailer on Legion Drive since last July.

Can you picture Williamsville's Main Street?

After nearly six years of community planning, Main Street in the Village of Williamsville is getting a $3.7 million makeover.

The village's Picture Main Street initiative becomes a reality in 2018, and includes numerous traffic-calming measures to make the thoroughfare more walkable for pedestrians. Over 36,000 vehicles travel on this section of Main daily.

Elements approved by the state Department of Transportation include bump-outs at signalized intersections, a H.A.W.K. (High-Intensity Activated crosswalk) beacon in front of Amherst Town Hall, new sidewalks and replacement of pavers between the sidewalk and curb. The project will also add benches, garbage cans and bike racks.

The project is expected to begin in the village center this spring. Upon completion, a full mill and pave and restriping of Main Street will follow.

Sidewalks come to Clarence

Five miles of sidewalks planned for Clarence's Main Street in 2018 will connect to sidewalks that stretch all the way to Williamsville and Buffalo.

"It will connect Clarence to Lake Erie. You'll be able to walk the whole length of Main Street in Clarence, which connects to (sidewalks) in Williamsville and the Niagara River," said Clarence Supervisor Patrick Casilio.

Locally the project will benefit people who walk along Main Street to get to shopping areas. The project will also add handicapped-accessible crosswalks.

The town is expected to break ground on the $1.2 million project in the spring.

Upsizing in Hamburg

Hamburg's Town Board returns to five members in 2018, after operating with three members for six years following a vote to downsize. With the election of a new supervisor and three board members, the most experienced board member will be Councilman Thomas Best Jr., who will be starting his third year on the board.

But one of the new members, Michael Petrie, has served as mayor of Blasdell for six-and-a-half years, and the new supervisor, Jim Shaw, has served as a municipal attorney for a number of years.

With the election of Petrie, Beth Farrell and Michael Mosey, the board's majority will shift from Democrat to Republican.

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