Using the recent blizzard as an example of how the people of Buffalo came together, Mayor Byron Brown urged citizens to continue lifting each other up as he presented his 2019 State of the City address.
This was Mayor Brown's 13th State of the City address, delivered Friday afternoon inside the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. According to city officials, an estimated 1,900 guests were scheduled to attend.
Scenes from the recent blizzard were featured on large video monitors as live musicians and singers performed "America the Beautiful." Following simulated thunder and lightning to further the storm theme, Mayor Brown took the stage and urged citizens to use the same compassion, determination and unity which got Buffalo through the storm and apply it to the many other challenges to come, including the non-stormy times.
"I am here today to tell you that together, with our storm-fighter mentality, we will make 2019 the year that we answered the call, a time when we unite, look out for one another and give a little more for the benefit of our community," Brown said.
His address then focused on a handful of key topics: economic development, public safety, environment and public health. Opening with economic development, he spotlighted approximately two dozen initiatives led by businesses, foundations and individuals. Among the projects mentioned was M&T Bank, which Brown said is bringing 1,000 new tech jobs into the city. He later told reporters the bank will make its own announcement to provide details.
He also acknowledged Douglas Jemal, who was identified by news reports as the buyer of the city's former police headquarters. Mayor Brown announced Jemal is also fronting $10 million to the city to it may expedite work to restore car traffic to the section of Main Street near his other property, One Seneca Tower.
Brown also provided an update on development in the East Side, announcing that the Buffalo Manufacturing Works will relocate to the Northland Corridor, where phase two of the project will be completed next year.
His comments and announcements regarding public safety drew more enthusiastic applause. He introduced Shelby Thompson, the first African-American woman to be promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in the Buffalo Fire Department. She received a standing ovation. Following her introduction, Mayor Brown acknowledged Firefighter Eric Whitehead, who continues to recover from severe burns suffered while responding to a call in January.
The mayor also drew applause when announcing he has instructed the Buffalo Police Department to stop enforcing low-level marijuana possession cases. Police had already begun to deprioritize low level marijuana arrests. Buffalo Police Captain Jeff Rinaldo said in a recent year, there were less than 200 arrests for possession.
“Of the majority of those arrests, it was based on 311 complaints. So whether it was business owners or home owners that would call and make a complaint that people were outside of their properties smoking marijuana,” he said. “It has not been a priority for the department for the enforcement of simply smoking or possessing marijuana in a public place. So as (Brown) said, we’ve met internally and will continue to meet internally to looking at other solutions to addressing this problem.”
That includes planning around future legislation.
“Legalization appears to be on the horizon,” said Rinaldo. “We do have to look at new alternatives to addressing the issue where it is causing a quality of life concern for other residents in the city.”
Brown said there are a number of new initiatives they are moving forward to improve operation of BPD, including a community policing academy to build relationship between community and police.
Shifting to environment and health, Brown announced the introduction of a new state-funded program known as ROLL, or Replacing Old Lead Lines. Under the program, broken or cracked lead lines will be replaced to prevent lead infiltration into the city's water supply. Additionally, the mayor announced the HELP program, or Help Eliminate Lead Pipes. Through that program, residents are encouraged to round up their fall water bill payments to contribute to a fund from which neighbors may be able to replace lead pipes.
Mayor Brown also declared Buffalo to be a Climate Refuge City. He explained one of the initiatives the city will pursue in partnership with Erie County, Erie Community College, Buffalo State College and the University at Buffalo.
"We are launching separate but linked (Requests for Proposals) to place solar panels on public assets across our community, including 32 city or Buffalo Sewer Authority-owned facilities and sites," he said. "Our power purchase agreement will bring renewable energy, positive environmental change and a creative approach to a sustainable future."
Brown ended his program by honoring retiring longtime city department heads Martin Kennedy and Steve Stepniak. Both worked for the city for more than 30 years. Kennedy most recently worked as the city's Commissioner of Assessment and Taxation, while Stepniak retired as Commissioner of the city's Department of Public Works, Parks and Streets.
He also provided a posthumous honor to Frank Messiah, the former longtime president of the Buffalo Chapter of the NAACP, who died last year. He was awarded the Key to the City. His daughter, Francesca, accepted the Key as Mayor Brown noted Messiah's lifetime accomplishments, in addition to his work in civil rights, also included service in the US military and with the Buffalo Police Department.
WBFO's Nick Lippa contributed to this report.