“And then what happened?” ¶ That about sums up the biggest local news stories of 2013. ¶ Plans made in 2012 began to take shape – except when they didn’t. New leadership in high profile jobs all over the community led to big changes, or not. Ongoing cases involving industrial pollution, casino revenues and several dozen thoroughbred horses found some form of conclusion, while other battles continued on new fronts. ¶ We had turmoil in the schools in Buffalo and the School Board in Hamburg. We offered the world a hero bus driver and two heartwarming polar bear cubs. ¶ In 2013, there was no high-walking Wallenda traversing Niagara Falls, no nail-biter election, and very little wacky weather. So far, it looks like 2013 may be the year of no notable weather records at all, unless you count the “high-minimum” temperature on July 19, besting a number set in 1878 – we went down to 77, one degree warmer than the old “warmest minimum.” ¶ It was a year of follow-ups and following through, a year with – thankfully – few headline-making crimes and no major disasters for Western New York. It was, in other words, a year unlike any other. ¶ That does not mean nothing happened. As voted on by the editorial staff of The News, here is our list of the Top 10 local stories of 2013:
1. Booming Buffalo
A species not seen here in a generation made an appearance in Buffalo in 2013. Construction cranes. You could see them near the waterfront. You could see them on the Medical Campus. And promises were made that they – or some other construction equipment – will appear on the site of an old steel mill on the Buffalo River in 2014. The restoration of the terminus of the Erie Canal and the nearby park brought thousands to Canalside. On the formerly vacant Webster Block parcel next to First Niagara Center, the $172.2 million HarborCenter project is on schedule to open by autumn 2014 with two ice rinks, a restaurant and retail. One block to the north, the former Donovan State Office Building reopened as One Canalside and welcomed its first tenants. To the north, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus rippled outward, as two new medical companies announced preparations to open on the campus, with a $250 million commitment. And in November, the state agreed to provide $225 million toward creation of a clean-energy research campus on 90 acres of land along the Buffalo River. Two California companies agreed to invest $750 million apiece in Buffalo High-Tech Manufacturing Innovation Hub @ RiverBend on the former Republic Steel brownfield site between the river and Tifft Street.
2. Buffalo schools in turmoil
With the state Education Department condemning their effectiveness on one side and outspoken new School Board member Carl Paladino leading the attack from within, Buffalo Public Schools’ new superintendent and other administrators found themselves caught between Common Core mandates and schools struggling just to be “in good standing.” One bright spot: more colleges and universities sign on with Say Yes, the tuition program designed to help students finish high school and get a college eduction.
3. Child Protective Services under fire
The beating death of 5-year-old Eain Clayton Brooks in his family’s West Side apartment in September shocked the community and prompted Assembly members to hold a special hearing seeking ways to make the system designed to protect children more accountable.
Eain’s family members believe his homicide – allegedly at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend, Matthew W. Kuzdzal– could have been avoided if Erie County Child Protective Services workers had heeded their complaints that the child was regularly abused. Despite reports from relatives and school officials that the boy had bruises, burns and marks on his body, authorities allowed the child to remain in the home.
After Eain’s death, two CPS caseworkers were fired and two supervisors were suspended without pay.
It was sadly reminiscent of the beating death of 10-year-old Abdifatah Mohamud, killed in April 2012 by his stepfather even though a year earlier, the boy himself had twice called 911 to tell authorities he needed protection from Ali-Mohamed Mohamud, the stepfather, and feared for his life. Police who investigated referred the case to CPS. Abdi also was never removed from his home.
4. Hero bus driver teaches a lesson
Bus driver Darnell Barton had just picked up 20 McKinley High School students eager to get home on a Friday afternoon in October, when he taught them and people across the nation a lesson in human compassion. As the 37-year-old driver headed south on Elmwood Avenue, he saw a woman on the Scajaquada Expressway overpass on the opposite side of the railing, leaning out over the traffic below. He stopped the bus, got out, walked slowly toward her and when he saw the opportunity, embraced her before persuading her to step on the other side of the railing to talk. Other motorists had passed by. Barton said he was only following his instincts. But his action and compassion gained attention around the world.
5. Assemblyman faces harassment accusations
Three women leveled allegations that Assembly Member Dennis Gabryszak made unwanted sexual advances and jokes while they worked for him. In claims that rocked Albany and Buffalo, the former aides to the Assemblyman say they quit their jobs because he had hounded them with sexual jokes and comments about their attire and their looks and suggested they spend the night with him. A fourth woman, presently employed by the Assemblyman, also has come forward with her own allegations. Gabryszak, a fixture in Cheektowaga politics, has not responded but has hired high-powered attorney Terrence Connors. Several high-placed Democrats in Buffalo and Albany have suggested that Gabryszak should resign.
6. Turnovers in the Buffalo sports world
After miserable regular season performances, Buffalo’s two major league sports teams underwent a major housecleaning. The Buffalo Bills fired coach Chan Gailey and hired Doug Marrone, a newcomer from Syracuse University, and released starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, replacing him with rookie draft pick EJ Manuel.
The Buffalo Sabres fired coach Lindy Ruff before the end of the 2012-13 season, and two months into the 2013-14 season fired new coach Ron Rolston and general manager Darcy Regier, bringing back fan favorite Pat LaFontaine for the front office and former coach Ted Nolan.
The turnovers didn’t stop there. The Bisons changed their affiliation to the Toronto Blue Jays and switched managers. And new coaches were brought in for the Bandits and the mens’ basketball teams at the University at Buffalo and Niagara University.
7. Two polar bear cubs steal our hearts
Two polar bear cubs – one born here, the other an orphan from Alaska – warmed our hearts, made names for themselves and Buffalo around the globe and in the process helped raise millions of dollars for the Buffalo Zoo. In fact, we almost lost the orphan because other zoos coveted him so much.
Luna is the female. She was born here in November 2012 but not introduced to the public until three months later. We – and the world – loved her at first sight. Photos and videos of the adorable bundle of fuzz gained attention in the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, India, Canada and Israel, among other places around the globe.
Kali is the orphan federal wildlife officials brought here in May after his mother was shot by a hunter in Alaska.
Together, they formed an adorable tandem. Sen. Charles E. Schumer had to step in because other zoos were making a pitch for Kali to be relocated. But that is not going to happen anytime soon. The two cubs also helped attract donations, which, with state help, reached $14 million for the new Arctic Edge exhibit.
8. Hamburg School Board in turmoil
The Hamburg School Board has been locked in bitter disputes for most of the year. Unlike Buffalo’s situation, the turmoil has not affected student performance. But it has divided the community, with accusations of blackmail, secretly recorded tapes, coverups, threats, vendettas and lawsuits. A Buffalo News investigation tied the dispute to the rape of a 15-year-old student in the home of a woman who now sits on the School Board. Many say the disputes between the two camps on the board have spilled over into the schools, where some teachers are very cautious about who they are seen talking to. Parents have held at least four community meetings off school property and some are asking the state education commissioner to remove School Board members.
9. Tonawanda Coke loses in court
An industrial pollution case resulted in convictions in March for Tonawanda Coke and an executive, with fines that could reach $200 million. The case by the Criminal Investigation Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation Police revealed that a few employees deliberately ignored environmental procedures, leading to pollution at and near the River Road plant. Employees were among the witnesses who testified about clean air violations and the improper handling of hazardous waste.
The verdict came as a relief to those living near Tonawanda Coke who attribute a high incidence of rare illness in their neighborhood to exposure to illegal emissions from the plant.
It was the biggest local environmental trial in years and only the second criminal prosecution nationally involving the Clean Air Act. A jury found the company guilty of spewing coke oven gas with cancer-causing benzene into the air and illegally disposing of coal-tar sludge.
Sentencing is set for March 19, 2014.
10. The battle of the Peace Bridge
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was frustrated with the progress of improvements on the U.S. side of the Peace Bridge. The Canadians blamed the slow pace on Americans. At the battle’s fever pitch, there were calls by some on the U.S. side to disband the binational operation of the bridge. The nastiness became so heated that Ottawa and Washington got involved. And when it was over, both sides agreed on a plan that added no new projects to the Peace Bridge but is expected to shave some time off the schedule for improvements on the American side of the bridge.
Many other stories attracted attention during the year.
After a four-year stalemate, New York State and the Seneca Nation of Indians came to an agreement on casino revenues in June, releasing tens of millions in deferred payments to the state and local municipalities. Two months after the agreement, the Senecas opened their new casino, Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, near the Cobblestone District in Buffalo.
While President Obama’s visit to the University at Buffalo didn’t make the Top 10, the chief executive’s visit did bring the area a degree of excitement along with unprecedented security. Thousands stood in line at Alumni Arena in August to hear the president’s plans for affordable higher education.
After three long years, the case against East Aurora horse breeder Beth Lynne Hoskins ended with a conviction on 52 counts of animal cruelty.
News that the Maid of the Mist would stop running after this season proved only half true, as the boat company left Canada but set up shop on the U.S. side only for next year.
It was a relatively quiet year in local politics, but Democratic Mayor Byron W. Brown easily cruised to re-election in the city while Republican candidates won a majority in the County Legislature and took almost every other countywide office decided in the November election.
Crime news came in fits and starts. Buffalo Police are still looking for the connection among a wave of autumn shootings, and an arrest was made in a Lackawanna cold case murder of 34 years ago. The baffling slaying of a well-liked manager in an early-morning attack at a Hamburg Toys R Us store was later cleared by the arrest of a fellow employee, and a Chautauqua County jury found a jealous husband guilty in the 2012 murder of the Clymer school superintendent.
After decades of inaction, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority traded away control of nearly 400 acres of waterfront property for $2. The newly developed Gallagher Beach and the Small Boat Harbor will be turned into a state park, and 130 acres of former industrial land on the north part of the outer harbor was transferred to Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.
Reports that the North Park Theatre would close when the Dipson lease was not renewed in June turned into announcements that the restored property would reopen in 2014.
A year after spearheading a rapid expansion that including taking over local retail banking operations from HSBC, John R. Koelmel was pushed out as CEO of First Niagara in March, after the bank stock plunged 42 percent. Koelmel wasn’t away for long; two months later he was given the job of president of HarborCenter.
And for a brief time this summer, Western New York was home to Guinness World Record holder Salustiano “Shorty” Sanchez, named the World’s Oldest Man in June. The Grand Island resident died in September at age 112.