by Chris Stevenson
Rich kids get taught, poor kids get tested. White homeowners get paid to move, black homeowners get made to move. Once again Buffalo, NY is weathering another storm, not another blizzard (yet), but our year-round storm of racism.
The key to understanding what has held Buffalo back for decades, is understanding the decision makers behind it’s economic kidnapping. Long-held members of the biggest liars club in the country, and we got them here black and white. The Mayor of Buffalo may or may not have anything to do with it, the real shot-callers are the heads of corporations and boards. The key word with them is anonymous, that’s the advantage they have operating in a city barely anyone pays attention to unless there’s a storm or one of our teams is in the playoffs.
The primary issue in Buffalo has been the need for jobs. Everyone admits this, only a few decision makers are really trying to make it happen. The current proposal for a downtown multi-use, domed stadium and entertainment complex is a plan that could make a giant leap toward providing jobs for thousands within Buffalo from the time the Mayor’s shovel breaks the first chunk of dirt to kick off the construction, to the countless job openings available at it’s completion. In typical Buffalo fashion the key unspoken reason this idea isn’t widely accepted around the county is that many don’t like the originator of this idea; Patrick Freeman, a black man from the east side.
Powerful whites as well many blue collar and middle-class whites in and around Erie County get suspicious about ideas by leading black officials, they smell an underlying plot that that could lead to the benefit of inner city blacks. Can’t have that. The best way to historically counter that is for the white community to select most-if not all-black officials and leaders, and make them yes-men/women to their personal benefit, but to the detriment of most black residents. I’ve written before that Freeman bases his downtown stadium idea on other sports facilities he has seen firsthand in his travels as a sports announcer, and his conversations with their city officials and team owners and front office people. He has attracted some major backers that can and are ready to make it happen.
Currently the Buffalo status quo favors the existing plan of spending at least $200 million to renovate Orchard Park’s Ralph Wilson Stadium; a highly unfeasible project for so many reasons. The most prominent of which is because there is no significant revenue generated from that facility after the football season is over, especially during the winter being that it’s an open-air facility. The next reason is the wear-and-tear the Ralph has endured exceeds the need to do the expensive repairs that the local taxpayers will eventually foot, and the short-term 10-year-or-so lease that is being agreed upon. Yet in spite of this Buffalo leaders and officials are content to barrel-in on a continued voyage on the sinking Titanic known as The Ralph. Whom are the personalities behind this resistance to change that stands to implement jobs and create and expand the middle-class to both blacks and whites in our fair city?
The most visible face we know of is the County Executive Mark Poloncarz. From a distance he seemed determine to take the easy route and hammer out some agreement, any agreement with Wilson for continued usage of the Orchard Park stadium. Behind him are a tangled-web of people and firms that Poloncarz and other city officials must answer to. Freeman clearly hints this in his recent commentary. I did my own research and was blown away at the efforts of a small few to keep Buffalo in the economic jungle that it’s currently in, and how successful they are. The issues extend beyond just the prevention of the downtown waterfront stadium.
The part of land on the Outer Harbor is owned by the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority (NFTA). Freeman and the group he now is a vice-President of; the Greater Buffalo Sports Entertainment Complex, is looking hard at some portion of land on the Outer Harbor. The Chairman and Trustee of the NFTA is local businessman Howard Zemsky. Buffalo has more than it’s share of individuals who never seem to get bored of joining boards, unlike most of them Zemsky does it with a purpose. Prior to Zemsky’s tenure with the NFTA, it’s chairman was Robert D. Gioia (1990-97), of Gioia Macaroni Company. Since 2007 he has been appointed president of the John R. Oishei Foundation, best-known for their private charitable funding around Western New York.
One seemingly indirect issue is the people and organizations in connection regarding the proposed sale of McCarley Gardens. Many in and around Buffalo know that a few years ago the Rev. Michael Chapman of St. John The Baptist Church made a deal to sell the 15-acre property for $15 million. Suspiciously low even for a land that is not considered shovel-ready. By contrast First Niagara gave that land to the University of Buffalo (UB) for one dollar ($1.00), the land was valued at $2 million per acre. The Langston Hughes Center was sold to Ciminelli Construction for $1.9 million for land that amounted to less than an acre.
In 2009 Robert Gioia through the Oishei Foundation donated $20, 000 to Saint John The Baptist Church, $100,000 the the University of Buffalo Foundation (UB Foundation), $80,000 (in addition to another $20,000 Special Initiatives Grant) to the Buffalo branch of the Urban League, and $85,000 (in addition to $15,000 Grants in Regional Assets) to the Buffalo State College Foundation (BSCF) among other donations.
In 2010 Gioia/Oishei donated $20,000 to St. John, $68,205 to the UB Foundation Inc., $850,000 to the UB Foundation for development of computational biology, $100,000 to the UB Foundation (Action plan to accelerate region’s high-tech economy), another $36,000 to the UB Foundation (for the Paul Simon Project), $150,000 to the Buffalo Urban League Inc. (Under 3-year general operating support), $20,000 to St. John the Baptist Church, and $133,475 to HOME (Housing Opportunities Made Equal).
In 2011 Gioia/Oishei donated $20,000 to the Buffalo Urban League, and another $20,000 to one more known black community resource group; Community Action Organization (CAO), both for “basic human needs.” St. John’s got $22,500 earmarked to one of their non-profit wings known to be shut down by the late Rev. Bennett W. Smith for years; the Outreach Center (That 501c3 is dead). $13,350 to the UB Foundation (Summer school violence program), $10,000 UB Foundation (Support consultant, interim CEO), $15,000 UB Foundation (Diabetes Research), $10,000 UB Foundation (Support “Post Industrial Buffalo”).
In 2012 Gioia/Oishei donated $100,000 to Buffalo Urban League (Re-establishing their fundraising/financial dept.).
Oishei and M&T want control, they control most culturals in Buffalo, Buffalo Zoo, Kleinhans Music Hall, Albright Knox Art Gallery, money, meetings 2-3,000 dollars per ticket or table dinners. “You get honorary appointments in buffalo. That’s how boards work, family inheritance plays in also. That’s why you don’t see many blacks there, those rich whites don’t want to understand,” said one former black elected official
What I just gave you is a basic breakdown of how one man through his position in an organization can buy political influence through donations to various community groups, foundations and Churches. The beginnings of UB 2020 officially start at the office of former President John B. Simpson and then-provost (and now President) Satish K. Tripathi in 2004. Their goal was to search for funding to make it the premier research institution on the east coast. (Whatever happened to the simpler days of protesting in front of then-President Bill Greiner’s house over the low admission of black students?), the result was art, science and other “unlucky” programs, including those associated with “high-quality affordable education” were reduced or eliminated, while tuition, and private assets would increase. Satish is also a regional co-chair with Zemsky on Andrew Cuomo’s Western New York Regional Economical Development Council. At the time of Cuomo’s swearing-in Satish was a candidate for UB President. While there is no record of him contributing to Cuomo’s campaign, UB did spend $276,785 in lobbying in New York State in 2010. Zemsky however did contribute $12,500 in campaign contributions to Cuomo.
In 2012 Zemsky was already contributing to “Andrew Cuomo 2014.” Nothing wrong with this in itself, except he was already appointed in March of that year to his current post of head of the NFTA. His state confirmation of that was announced in the Governor’s office on the 15th, according to another site (new york true– John Kenny) four days later Zemsky contributed $15,000 to Andrew Cuomo 2014. Cuomo’s people refunded the money on May 8, eight days later his wife Leslie Zemsky reportedly contributed $40,000 to Andrew Cuomo 2014. The question asked then was, was the refund due to Zemsky’s appointment only days earlier? Sadly this isn’t his only conflict of interest. Historically Zemsky campaign contributions are all over the place (Last year he spent a personal high of over $43,000; generosity according to local major media, buying influence in reality) and he is the governors main man and calls almost all shots locally for the Governor and the city of Buffalo as far as community development. Zemsky doesn’t waste time buying influence, he began contributing to Byron for Buffalo back in April 28, 2009 under Leslie Zemsky ($1,000), 5/6/10 ($2,500), 8/22/12 ($1,500), 3/9/11 ($2,500), 4/17/13 ($5,000), and 4/18/12 ($2,500).
Gioia didn’t make any campaign contributions to Cuomo in 2010, but of course he is a former NFTA Commissioner and was named “Executive of The Year,” by the UB School of Management. Zemsky is the only member of this economic council who actually contributed to Cuomo’s campaign, with the exception of John R. Koelmel ($2,000), the President and CEO of First Niagara Financial Group and board member of Buffalo Niagara Partnership (BNP) and Kaleida Health, and Greg Edwards ($3,059.94), the Chautauqua County Executive and only elected official listed as a 2010 Cuomo campaign contributor. Others notables like BNP President Andrew J. Rudnick ($89,723), and Alfred University President Dr. Charles Edmondson ($64,541) didn’t contribute to Cuomo’s campaign personally, but directed their organizations in spending major lobbying dollars in New York State.
Of course Zemco industries is Zemsky’s, they own, they also had the largest meat recall of anyone in a while. Back in 8/24/10 the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service announced that a Buffalo establishment “is recalling 380,000 pounds of deli meat products that may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. These products were distributed to delicatessens where they were further processed into sandwiches for Wal-Mart stores.” The law firm of Schmidt & Clark, LLP out of DC is who identifies Zemco as the producer of the foods in question, Schmidt & Clark Food Poisoning Litigation Group represents plaintiffs in that recall lawsuit. Most Buffalonians aren’t recognizing Zemsky as being involved with Zemco because they haven’t made the connection.
Zemsky quietly virtually owns buffalo, in an era where the US Supreme Court recently voted 5-4 turn back some voting rights, unless blacks can control campaign reform it doesn’t matter what the SC does. Are Cuomo’s appointments in violation of the public integrity law when it came to Zemsky? Cuomo appointed him to 3 boards, co-chair of Billions 2 Buffalo, NFTA, and MOD-PAC Industries. Zemsky is also on several other boards other than the aforementioned Western New York Regional Economical Development Council, Zemco and the NFTA; There’s the Buffalo State College Council-Chairman, Billion 2 Buffalo Fund-co-Chairman, Buffalo Place Inc., -Vice President, and New Stadium Working Group, and a very benign membership as Treasurer of the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor Commission.
Thanks to this connection Buffalo is in worse shape than it was during the days when Courier Express columnist Phil Ranallo (“What’s New Harry?”) wrote about what prevented Buffalo from building a downtown stadium:
“THE SAD PART of all this is, it could have happened here in Buffalo long ago. Your newspaper the Courier Express thumped the tubs for a downtown stadium in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
And it definitely would have happened, had it not been for those certain people in certain quarters.
Our head-in-the-sand leaders, men with lack of foresight, acquiesced to the dictates of those selfish certain people!
They built Wilson his 80,000-seat football-only stadium in Orchard Park and thereby slammed the major-league baseball door on Buffalo —and for that baseball fans in Montreal and Toronto will be forever grateful.
Those Canadian cities landed big league baseball franchises, either of which could have been Buffalo’s — if we’d had the proper leadership.”
Well we can’t seem to shake Phil’s “certain people in certain quarters.” In fact today some of them have planted themselves in several quarters just to make sure their delusions are fulfilled, and are shooting down good ideas about downtown stadium proposals just so a limited few can walk along the lake or on a nice field overlooked by a grain elevator and maybe even a cotton gin. That’s right folks, like Three Dog Night said; Eli’s coming, Eli Whitney that is, Zemsky and his cronies aren’t just delusional, they’re not even good businessmen. Bad enough their fixation with old landmarks has gone from obsession to insanity (Many of you don’t understand, back in 1808 Buffalo was officially called the “Village of Buffalo”), they have little or no love or respect for the goods and services they produce right now. Concerning Zemsky’s ties with MOD-PAC they have been under a little-known major investigation. Zemsky is an independent director of their board which also includes Chairman Kevin Keane, President/CEO/Director Daniel Keane, Financial Officer David Lupp, Vice President of Finance Daniel Geary, Philip Rechin, William Gisel, Robert McKenna, and Deborah Pawlowski.
A 1/12/12 letter written by Nicholas Stracick of the GBSEC to Henry Sloma of the NFTA discloses their efforts to start some talks with them on a sports facility on a portion of their waterfront site: “We are working with a timetable, I am requesting a meeting at your earliest convenience at which time we can provide you with an overview of the conceptual and business model as well as our planning objectives… in addition we would like to discuss a revenue sharing formula that would ensure the NFTA a longterm revenue stream from this development.”
Along the same lines of Zemsky’s fiduciary troubles is his blatant-and some feel unlawful-disregard of the GBSEC and a 2nd letter written to him by John Hutchings and Mark Williams under their HKS letterhead wanting to meet with him. Shortly before Zemsky was officially named head of NFTA HKS’ 2nd letter to NFTA dated 4/18/12 was sent to him. Here is a portion of it: “We have delivered Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for the 2012 Super Bowl and the Cowboys’ Stadium in Arlington Texas which hosted the 2011 Super Bowl. We have also been working with other cities on sports venue-led developments including the City of Oakland on their Oakland Coliseum site and the Minnesota Vikings regarding regarding their new proposed stadium in Minneapolis. In your role as Co-Chair of WNY Regional Council for Economic Development and the incoming Chairman of NFTA, we would like to meet with you at your earliest convenience so that we can present our vision for a sports stadium-led master plan which will act as an economic engine and development catalyst for downtown Buffalo.”
With all the questions regarding Zemsky’s business practices does his outright refusal to officially respond to any of the letters fall more under purposeful corruption or careless indifference as in his costly decision to expose his 503cp Zemsky Foundation to none other than Bernard Madoff? Under “Foundations with Possible Exposure to Madoff of 30% or More by Number of Board Members and Percent of Assets Possible Exposed,” number 48 (pp. 9/14) Zemsky Foundation c/o Taurus Partners NY; Total Assets $4,299,247, Madoff Possible Exposure $4,040,322, Percentage of Assets Possibly Exposed 93.98, Board Member Names- Howard Zemsky, Sam Zemsky, Shirley Zemsky. I am not inferring or linking the foundation in with Madoff’s corruption, especially since it seems Zemsky’s 501c3 group probably took a hit as well. But how much do the funders and/or recipients of this organization know of this?
The lesson here seems to be, that you can’t always present vision to people who have no vision. Buffalo’s elite are focused on the old landmarks, to a fault. The series of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux Cazenovia Park, Riverside Park, South Park, Delaware Park (formerly The Park), and of course Front Park (formerly The Front) continue to be heavily funded and given great regard as turn-of-the-century landmarks except for parks that existed during a population shift and are now in the center of the black community; Humbolt Parkway of course was a beautiful wide divider along the street of the same name until it became of casualty of highway 33, and the foot of old Humbolt Parkway (formerly The Parade) now known as Martin Luther King Park is often the subject of heated debates and comparatively miserly funding. The Underground Railroad predates anything here done by Olmsted, Zemsky and his ilk want nothing having to do with it. Why? It’s safe to assume it’s a project focusing too much on local black interests, never mind that blacks and whites from out of town need to be enlightened by this major part of American history.
On 5/10/13 a letter of proposal was sent to the NFTA by the GBSEC through their attorneys De Marie & Schoenborn to purchase 150 acres of land located at the Outer Harbor for $500,000. Of course this was already reported by the Buffalo News. This is the initial land option agreement with hopes of further more-specific agreements between the two parties. According to the News: “But even with the Greater Buffalo Entertainment and Sports Complex firm putting money behind its offer, the NFTA is responding with a firm ‘no, thank you… We’re going to stay the course,’ NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel said weeks ago. ‘We’re in the middle of negotiations with the City of Buffalo and the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. with a goal of maintaining public access.’ Minkel also said the authority cannot enter into the negotiations proposed by the group without launching a competitive bidding process.” A “land option” according to GBSEC-Partner George Hasiotis in an interview I did with him back on 5/11/13, “It’s a very simple real estate instrument, before you are given full development rights or sale of a property, you can enter into an option agreement for a specified period of time. During which you do further research to determine the viability of your commercial budget. So what we’re asking from the NFTA for in the state of New York is give us an option from 9 to 12 months, during which time we’ll come back with an agreement from the NFL with parking, traffic and environmental studies to answer all your questions that will show you that this is a viable project. And that will be paid for by us so there’s really no risk at all to the NFTA, to the state or to the city.” I find it strange that Zemsky is now interested in entertaining bid proposals now, when this isn’t the case with MOD-PAC.
It’s not that that there isn’t any local support for a new state of the art downtown domed-stadium, there are people like Councilman Demone Smith, legislature Betty Jean Grant, who helped give voice to this early on. Both black Mayoral candidates Byron Brown and Bernard Tolbert expressed interest publicly, and letters of support from The Buffalo Black Chamber of Commerce, Bishop Michael Badger, Bishop L.H. Young, the Buffalo-Niagara Chapter of the National Action Network among others. This project needs all of these forces to push up on Zemsky and the NFTA and convince him not to waste public time or money with the waterfront park project which could cost millions in construction and yearly maintenance, but not give any meaningful return as far as jobs are concerned.
If you are like me you’re wondering in the case of Howard Zemsky between Zemco, the Zemsky Foundation and MOD-PAC how come the local media such as Buffalo News, Business First, or any of the local news on the big three networks hasn’t made any of this common knowledge, it’s probably because they drink too much of his Kool Aid, or they just outright refuse to. There was a 7/26 press conference during the time of the HKS presentation at Buffalo State that prevented the presentation from getting the audience and local major media exposure the way it should have. Zemsky of course is more of a major force in interlocking directives than Rev. Chapman, or even Robert Gioia, but few know that those three directives are playing a silent role in keeping the City of Buffalo from moving into the 2000s where we need to be. Stay tuned for part-3.
Chris Stevenson is a regular columnist for blackcommentator, Political Affairs Magazine, and a syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter, and Facebook, you don’t have to join any of them. Watch his video commentary Policy & Prejudice and The Network for clbTV & Follow his Blogtalkradio interviews on 36OOseconds. Respond to him on the link below.