Big stories of the year too often mark tragedies, disappointments and heartaches, but many of the top 10 local stories for the Buffalo Niagara region in 2012 were about daring feats, impressive development and growing optimism for the future. Nothing illustrates that contrast more clearly than the stories that claim the first two spots on the Top 10 local news stories of the year – the trial of a drunken physician who struck and killed a girl while driving home and the breathtaking wire walk that thrilled a community thirsty for such awesome national exposure. Here's our list of the top 10 local stories of 2012, based on weighted voting by The Buffalo News staff.
1. Corasanti acquitted
The trial and acquittal of physician James G. Corasanti on felony manslaughter charges riveted the region and outraged many community members who considered his verdict a travesty and an indictment of the criminal justice system.
Corasanti stood trial for 13 days in May on charges that he committed manslaughter when he struck and killed 18-year-old skateboarder Alexandria “Alix” Rice on Heim Road in Amherst while driving drunk, then proceeded home without stopping.
Jurors accepted the defense's explanation that Corasanti was unaware he struck Rice and found him guilty of a single misdemeanor count of driving while intoxicated. He was sentenced to one year in jail. The outcome prompted lawmakers to attempt to close what they saw as a loophole in the law that allowed Corasanti to evade a felony conviction.
2. Wallenda's wirewalk across the falls
Daredevil Nik Wallenda's spectacular wirewalk across Niagara Falls captivated watchers across the world in June. Wallenda crossed the Niagara gorge on an 1,800-foot cable under evening lights, battling heavy mist as he carried his 38-pound balancing pole for 26 breathtaking minutes during prime time.
Despite the controversies surrounding ABC's requirement that Wallenda be tethered to the wire, and later squabbles regarding payment to the city for police security, Wallenda's stunning walk over the gorge in front of the Horseshoe Falls from the United States to Canada wowed onlookers.
Talk continues of the walk generating millions in future tourism dollars.
3. HSBC sells, shrinks and settles
HSBC made plenty of news this year as it becomes a diminished presence in Western New York. The corporation sold off the bulk of its local branches to First Niagara Bank and 26 others to Key Bank, elevating First Niagara into a major banking powerhouse in the region and moving HSBC out of the personal banking business locally. The bank also sold its U.S. credit card and mortgage businesses, both of which employed people here.
HSBC recently confirmed plans to vacate its tall downtown building, One HSBC Center, leaving the building owner to scramble for new potential uses for the tower.
Finally, HSBC agreed this month to pay a record-shattering $1.92 billion settlement to avoid federal and state money-laundering charges stemming from its dealings with drug cartels and rogue states. Federal prosecutors said the bank failed to stop cartels in Mexico and Colombia from laundering at least $881 million in drug profits.
4. Bills make stadium lease deal
The 10-year lease extension of Ralph Wilson Stadium and its hefty $400 million “relocation fee” ensures that the Buffalo Bills won't be going anywhere for at least the next seven years. A soothing balm for perpetually insecure fans, the new lease is substantially shorter than the previous one and will cost Erie County more money.
Ralph Wilson Stadium will receive $130 million in renovations, with the county footing $41 million in stadium upgrade costs, and the state and the Bills covering the remainder. The NFL team will also pay $800,000 in annual rent for the first time after having previously been rent-free tenants.
5. Union-schools fight risks millions in aid
For much of this past school year, it appeared that the Buffalo City Schools would lose out on $5.6 million in state aid because of a failure of the district and the Buffalo Teachers Federation to reach agreement on a teacher-evaluation plan for six schools. After much turmoil and disagreement, the two sides came to terms in June.
Now, however, the Buffalo schools stand to lose $58.7 million in state aid and grants if the district cannot work out a teacher-evaluation plan with the union by Jan. 17. The Buffalo Teachers Federation, meanwhile, said there will be no agreement until the district reconsiders its involuntary transfer of 54 teachers out of low-performing schools.
All sides agree that the loss of state money would be “devastating,” yet the conflict goes unresolved. Their public battle has resulted in frustrated and angry parents who want both sides to put children first.
6. Collins versus Hochul
Former Republican County Executive Chris Collins rose from an embarrassing election defeat in 2011 to gain the title of U.S. congressman this election season in a tight race for the 27th Congressional District seat against Democratic incumbent Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul.
Hochul, a Democrat in a conservative district, impressed political observers with her ability to hold her own and keep the race a dead heat for most of the campaign. But her misleading, negative campaign ads enabled Collins to overcome his reputation as a hard-nosed businessman and win by a razor-thin margin in November.
He claimed victory with 50.8 percent of the vote to Hochul's 49.2 percent – one of the narrowest congressional margins in local history.
7. Gates and Children's hospitals move
Kaleida Health shuttered Millard Fillmore Hospital at Gates Circle in Buffalo after 140 years of operation and opened the new $291 million Gates Vascular Institute on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus in May, consolidating Kaleida's heart, stroke and vascular care services in one location. The stunning new building also houses the UB Clinical and Translational Research Center and Jacobs Institute.
In August, Kaleida announced the selection of Chason Affinity's $65 million proposal to create a school of veterinary medicine in the former Gates hospital building, completing an 18-month process to find a developer for the nearly 10-acre site that closed in March.
Kaleida also laid out plans to move Women & Children's Hospital from its historic location on Bryant Street to the medical campus, this time without the opposition that scuttled the idea a decade ago. The smaller, brighter 10-story building is expected to break ground this spring and be renamed the John R. Oishei Children's Hospital, in honor of a $10 million gift from the Oishei Foundation toward the $200 million facility.
8. Say Yes to Education gains steam
The Buffalo Public Schools partnership with Say Yes to Education moves full steam ahead as more and more businesses donate toward the nonprofit initiative, which promises to pay the tuition of every city high school graduate who goes to college – and provide millions more for tutoring, after-school programs and other help to get them there.
Say Yes has now received at least $17.5 million from private donors, foundations and businesses to help pay the college costs of Buffalo grads since the organization came to the city last year, moving it closer to its goal of raising $30 million to support the first decade of scholarships.
Say Yes Buffalo will begin issuing scholarships next year. Despite some overly optimistic claims, many hope the program will be the catalyst needed to improve the city schools' poor graduation rates.
9. 'Mass hysteria' outbreak in Le Roy
In late 2010, teenage girls at Le Roy Junior-Senior High School began exhibiting signs of a strange “mystery illness” consisting of involuntary gestures, twitches and sounds reminiscent of Tourette's syndrome. By early this year, that figure grew to 12, then 18, as the international media descended on the small Genesee County town.
National activists such as Erin Brockovich and concerned parents demanded answers and a battery of environmental tests, including air, soil and water testing to uncover the source of problem.
Credible neurologists, pathologists and representatives with the state Department of Health determined that the girls suffered individually from conversion disorder, and collectively from mass psychogenic illness or “mass hysteria.” The diagnosis was met with disbelief and ridicule by some, dividing the community. Most students have since recovered.
10. Warm winter turns into drought
This year shattered all sorts of heat records. What started as an exceptionally mild winter, with no frozen Lake Erie and summer temperatures in March, ended as a major drought across the region by summer.
The four-month period from May 1 to Aug. 31 was the warmest – and the third-driest – in 142 years of local record-keeping, according to the National Weather Service. Rain was more than 5 inches below normal and municipalities began asking residents to voluntarily cut back on water consumption. Only 4.79 inches of rain fell during June, July and August, with 1.95 of that coming in the first three days of June.
Farmers lost crops, and the freezes that followed an early spring damaged fruit produce and sent prices up.
There was tough competition for the top 10 spots in this year's ranking. The notable arrivals of both a new Buffalo Public School superintendent and a new Catholic bishop, for instance, failed to make the final list. Following, however, are several honorable mentions that almost made the cut, but didn't.
• Billion for Buffalo – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announces his intention to give companies $1 billion over the coming years to expand or locate in the Buffalo region.
• Surgeon's murder-suicide – Erie County Medical Center trauma surgeon Timothy Jorden lures his ex-girlfriend into a medical office stairwell and shoots her to death before later killing himself.
• NHL lockout – For the second time in eight years, National Hockey League owners locked out their hockey players in September over a contract dispute, depriving Sabres fans and local businesses of at least half a season of hockey.