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Long Story Short: Good news for the East Side, school kids, and justice



East Side story

Two recent news stories hint at a brighter future for Buffalo’s East Side. Last week the Buffalo News reported on a $65 million Buffalo Billion II five-year revitalization plan that was announced last March. That might seem like old news, but the thrust of the story was that a comprehensive plan for East Side development is now being implemented, with much of the work kicking in this summer.


This comes on the heels of the highly successful Northland Corridor development project, which repurposed empty industrial buildings for use in workforce training in advanced manufacturing through the creation of the Northland Workforce Training Center and Buffalo Manufacturing Works.


An art space is born

The other story was the opening of AK Northland, the new art space operated by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (AKAG) across from the Northland Workforce Training Center, while the Elmwood Avenue museum is closed for a two-year expansion and restoration.


Attendees arrived in droves on Wednesday for a member and neighbor’s preview, and again on Friday for the general public opening. Both events generated an atmosphere of excitement, demonstrating that East Side attractions can draw diverse crowds; all it takes is investment in this long-neglected part of the city.


The AK Northland events feature art installations, paintings, and performances by people of color, which carries added significance within this black majority community. The AK Northland audience was diverse. Being there, you wouldn’t know Buffalo is one of the most racially segregated metropolitan regions in the nation.


Additional events are planned in the coming weeks, and according the AKAG representatives we talked to, the hope is that attendance by neighborhood residents will increase over time. Admission is always pay-what-you-wish or free.


The $65 million-dollar question

All this good news comes with an asterisk. The Northland Corridor alone cost $90 million in state funds. Improvements planned with the $65 million funding from the Buffalo Billion II are much more extensive. They focus on nine areas along the commercial corridors of Michigan, Jefferson, Fillmore, and Bailey avenues. A partial list of intended improvements includes major street makeovers, stabilization of decaying buildings, façade improvement, and homeowner support. There are plans to improve Martin Luther King Park, the Colored Musicians Club, Broadway Market, and the Central Terminal.  


The Buffalo News lists other businesses that stand to benefit: “Mr. Love & Sons Barber Shop, 1388 Jefferson Ave.; the Varsity Theatre, 3165 Bailey Ave.; and Al Cohen’s Bakery, 1132 Broadway.” Funds are also earmarked to restore the vacant former Schreiber Brewery on Fillmore. The list goes on and on, with many items on the sounding like major developments.  


The News calls the funding a “catalytic moment.” Hopefully, that means it will be a catalyst for private investment. When asked if $65 million is enough, Mayor Brown had an emphatic one-word answer, “No.” Though the city has worked with the state to identify areas where improvement will have the most impact, the cost of doing it all will certainly be much steeper that the announced funds.


The takeaway

There’s no question that this investment is warranted and long overdue. That it’s generating excitement among businesses and residents of the East Side is certainly good news. Hope has been in short supply east of Main Street for decades. With luck, this $65 million will become a catalyst for substantial private investment, particularly by job-generating businesses. And AK Northland will serve as a proof that the East Side is an untapped frontier for cultural and recreational development. Otherwise it’s hard to see how the state will accomplish its stated goals.



Collins saga ends with prison

Chris cried. A lot.


People who feel antipathy toward the—in his own words—"disgraced former Congressman,” Christopher Collins, may gain some satisfaction from the extreme mortification he exhibited as he was sentenced for his crimes Friday. Friends likely feel sympathy. Some may even experience something of a “there but for the grace of god” moment.


"I will never be involved in scouting again, which is my life," sobbed the convicted Eagle Scout as he stood before U.S. District Court Judge Vernon Broderick. Until his trial, where scouting was mentioned nineteen times, most would have thought being a Congressman, prosperous businessman, and maker of tycoons was his life. After all, it was the number of Buffalo millionaires his stock tips produced that he was overheard boasting about, not his mastery of the ten essential scouting knots. Trials bring out the boy scout in everyone.


A history of ethical shadiness

Well before he committed insider trading crimes—resulting in a twenty-six-month prison sentence—an Office of Congressional Ethics investigation found that he likely violated the law and House rules by sharing nonpublic information with investors. As a board member of Innate Immunotherapeutics, he enabled sixteen friends and campaign contributors to buy Innate shares at discount prices through his VIP connections. Collins’ lawyers argued that any mention of that probe would violate the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause. Legal experts say it wouldn’t, but that legal battle would have been lengthy, so those charges were dropped, and evidence withheld, likely reducing Collins’ sentence.


As a Congressman, he inserted a provision into the Century Cures Act that allowed fast-track approval for investigational drugs, boosting Innate's stock. As a result, his stockholder friends quickly realized up to a 700% gain on their investment. Thus, the phone call overheard by a reporter in which he boasted, "Do you know how many millionaires I've made in Buffalo the past few months?" The stock later crashed after its only experimental drug failed in clinical trials, leading to Collins tipping off his son, who tipped others off before the news went public.


As a Congressman, Collins was also the leading proponent of the Export-Import Bank, which subsidizes US exports, for which Boeing and General Electric are major beneficiaries. Unsurprisingly, both were major PAC funders to his campaign.


The sentence

Collins’ twenty-six-month sentence also includes a $200,000 fine, which, for the record, is just about $25,000 more than the federal pension he will collect if he lives to the average life expectancy for a man his age. According to former Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) attorney, John Britt—who has eighteen years’ experience in the Division of Enforcement and thirteen in the Division of Corporation Finance—the SEC could and should have gone after Collins for disgorgement plus interest to the tune of almost $800,000. So, money-wise, he got off cheap.    


His prison sentence, on the other hand, falls between the non-mandatory federal maximum guidelines of four years and nine months and the US Probation Office recommendation for Collins of a year and a day. Collins’ lawyers had asked for no prison time. As an older inmate, under the First Step Act, he may be eligible for release in seventeen months. After serving this sentence, Collins will be under one year of supervised release. He has requested to be assigned to FPC Pensacola, a minimum-security federal prison camp that’s about a nine-hour drive from his Florida home.


Silver lining

Some good came out of all this. In response to Collins’ actions, Congress banned members, delegates, resident commissioners, officers, or employees in the House from serving as an officer or director of any public company. "Collins’ hubris is a stark reminder that the people of New York can and should demand more from their elected officials,” said Geoffrey S. Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York after the sentencing, “and that, no matter how powerful, no lawmaker is above the law.” The sentence will hopefully serve as a reminder for wealthy and powerful investors who might otherwise expect preferential treatment in the courts.



Speed zone follow-up

LSS previously reported on Buffalo’s newly installed school zone camera system in use at select locations. It’s intended to catch and ticket drivers who exceed the posted fifteen MPH speed limit—five MPH slower than generally recommended, and potentially a hazard itself—during school hours. Since school zone speed limits were not previously enforceable in Buffalo, the old signs didn’t include days and times when they were in force. LSS wanted to know if this has been corrected, and we’re happy to report that the old signs have largely been replaced with ones indicating speed limit hours on school days from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Department of Public Works Commissioner Michael Finn says that all but a few are in place, and they are being finalized this month. Unfortunately, most schools don’t have signs indicating where the zone ends, creating a guessing game for drivers who are trying to obey the law.


The reality

Regrettably, most drivers are not obeying the law. This is borne out through personal observation and national studies. The Committee for Guidance on Setting and Enforcing Speed Limits of the Transportation Research Board states: “Studies of the effectiveness of school zone limits, however, have generally found poor driver compliance, particularly when the limits are set very low, and no relationship between pedestrian crashes and the special limits.” Reducing speeds in school zones involves more than just posting speed signs. The Institute of Transportation Engineers states, “Simply setting a reduced speed limit in a school zone is not likely to produce the entire desired speed reduction on its own.”


Five-point solution

The Virginia Department of Transportation assembled an easy-to-understand summary detailing other widely supported methods of making school zones safer. It breaks down into five components: education, engineering, encouragement, enforcement, and evaluation. They are all important. It’s unlikely Buffalo has done more than put up arbitrarily low speed limit signs. In my personal experience, I have never seen police enforcing school zones speed limits. The select schools now equipped with cameras will become an income source for the city (until, as in other cities, they are found to be unreliable), and the apparent failure to enforce the law in other zones will encourage speeding. So, the job of protecting students is not yet done.



Forensics for kids

How do you teach children to appreciate science while having fun? That must have been the question children’s author Kate Messner asked herself before beginning her upcoming book, Solve This! Forensics: Super Science and Curious Capers for the Daring Detective in You (cover image at top)Though she has penned over thirty books for young readers, Messner quickly realized she would need help with the science on this one. So, she turned to her older sister, retired high school science teacher and Buffalo resident, Anne Ruppert, to co-author the book.


For the love of science

“To be honest,” says Rupert, “she dragged me into this project kicking and screaming.” Ruppert was still teaching at Tonawanda City High School at the time, and she had just been assigned two new courses to prepare, so she was more than a little hesitant to take on added work. But her sister’s science-based book concept got her excited. Kids will read about invented (child-appropriate) crimes, then decide what forensics procedure to carry out to solve them. Readers then turn to an answer page to discover the outcome. “I reluctantly agreed [to co-author the book] and I hashed out the science parts while Kate created the story line,” explains Ruppert.


After pitching the opening chapter to multiple publishers, National Geographic decided that it fit in with their Nat Geo Kids series, which includes Solve This (for engineering problems), Make This, and Code This, all STEM activity books for kids ages eight to ten. Ruppert and Messner’s book is also a "Solve This” title, involving forensics.   


Do it yourself crime-solving

The book utilizes home experiments, including fingerprinting, handwriting analysis, DNA extraction, and even a carbon dating simulation. “The science is very up to date,” says Ruppert, “and we have Michelli Schmitz, head of Central Police Services Forensics Lab here in Buffalo to thank; she proved to be an invaluable resource!” The fact that this is an all-woman project involving science should be a bonus to parents wishing to dispel notions of male superiority in the field.   


“Having taught forensics for eight years,” Ruppert explains, “the laboratory activities were a cinch to come up with, since at the high school level we can't afford to get too sophisticated with equipment.” Having written countless lab procedures, creating easy-to-follow step by step instructions was easy.


“National Geographic was a pleasure to work with,” says Ruppert, “and they came up with the layout, actually performed and photographed my experiments, and illustrated our crime scenes with great attention to detail.”  The book goes on sale March 17. 


Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.


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