In a trial that begins Monday, a jury in a Manhattan courtroom will decide whether bids were rigged in contracts related to construction projects funded by the Buffalo Billion. But it’s important to remember what’s not on trial: the Buffalo Billion, itself, a monumental economic undertaking that has helped reignite Western New York’s economy.
Buffalo developer Louis Ciminelli and three other defendants face corruption charges over the awarding of contracts for several large-scale projects, including the solar plant at RiverBend in South Buffalo. Ciminelli, a major donor to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, is charged with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
The trial is expected to take a month or so. If wrongdoing took place, it should be punished, or the defendants’ names cleared if they are innocent.
The Buffalo Billion is a signature project of Cuomo, who is up for re-election in 2018. If a guilty verdict is returned, or even if it’s not, his opponents will try to form a link in voters’ minds between the corruption charges and the governor’s office. Political attacks are unavoidable, but that brush should not be used to tar the economic program itself.
Just close your eyes and try to recall downtown before the Buffalo Billion and its infusion of taxpayer dollars. It’s not a pretty picture. The population in Erie County was stagnating, the economy was stuck in neutral and our collective civic psyche was bruised.
Now we have the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, Canalside, and the Tesla solar panel factory – which itself received three-quarters of a billion in funding. There’s also the Athenex drug factory and the IBM data analytics hub. All of these projects were created or improved with funding from the Buffalo Billion.
There is more to come with Phase II of the Billion, which amounts to another $500 million in investments.
Phase II includes transportation projects, including extending the Metro Rail to the DL&W Terminal, a study on bringing Metro Rail out to UB’s North Campus and a new downtown train station.
Buffalo Billion II also includes new funds for the 43North business plan competition, plus a new innovation center to give incubator space to startup companies.
There is also major money for improvements to Niagara Falls, funding for the National Comedy Center in Jamestown and $60 million set aside for revitalization projects on Buffalo’s East Side.
Albany’s economic shot in the arm has given our area momentum that is a key to attracting and keeping young people. Home sales have been setting a record pace in the region for several years. There has been an uptick in hiring. And we no longer have to beg 20-somethings not to flee to Charlotte, Orlando or Seattle.
Cuomo insider Joseph Percoco earlier this year was convicted in a separate corruption trial of using his Albany access to enrich himself. Republican Marc Molinaro and Democratic challenger Cynthia Nixon won’t be shy about mentioning Percoco’s ties to the governor as the political season heats up in the summer.
Cuomo is not accused of any wrongdoing in the Buffalo Billion trial, but should any of the defendants be found guilty, the governor’s opponents will try to make some of the fallout stick to Cuomo. No political point-scoring, however, should obscure what the governor’s economic program has done to help put our city back on its feet.