I spent a lifetime working as a journalist, covering the stories of my time, and meeting many wonderful people along the way, many of whom I was able to help. For us at One Niagara, moving this project forward is viewed as helping the city improve also. It is as much a passionate vocation as it is a job.
Many people, visitors and locals alike, have wondered for years why Niagara Falls seems like a broken down city, hardly worthy of its world wonder and badly overshadowed by its neighbor to the north. As president of One Niagara, I have a terrific vantage point of all of it: the bustling, thriving city on the other side (quite a visual treat from our ninth-floor observation deck) and the mostly empty downtown on the New York side -- the pale legacy of years of quarrelsome, narrow minded leadership that seems to continually thrive despite repeated failure.
Nowhere else is the city so well poised to strike against this legacy of failure than in its developing relations with the new owners of One Niagara. One Niagara is on the move; in spite of the economy, we are reinvesting in downtown. A positive commitment from the city can catapult this project forward, revitalizing the international gateway to Niagara Falls.
I originally arrived at One Niagara excited that I could help negotiate a constructive relationship with the city and get about the business of making our tourism center a catalyst for downtown development. In late July of 2010 new ownership acquired One Niagara. Like Frank Parlato, I consider the new ownership team friends of mine. Contrasted with Frank's perceived hard-hitting management style, this team attempted a less challenging approach when dealing with City Hall's bureaucracy. But despite the best efforts of Paul Grenga, Jimmy Roscetti, Richard Soluri and myself, we still haven't been able to reach any economic development accord with City Hall that would pave the way for our tourism center and the downtown area to reach their potential.
Yes, we did finally get a site plan approved on about the ninth or tenth try (I lost count), but our excitement was short-lived. The former owner, who happens to be the publisher of this newspaper, did pay more than $650,000 in taxes, penalties and interest against insanely high tax bills, much of which was inherited when the AquaFalls PILOT Agreement cratered. There has been plenty of talk with the mayor and his aides about trying to coordinate the city's economic development team with ours, yet the mayor has not been willing to move that process forward. We also offered a number of proposals to settle the tax assessment and "arrearage" issues, but so far no agreement.
We are already in court seeking tax assessment reductions. Should a "tax foreclosure" action be started by the city, we will, of course, defend ourselves there, too.
A pro-development city would try to help. More than 100 people are employed here; there are more than 50 full-time-equivalent positions. We host two dozen locally owned businesses, entertain many, many thousands of tourists, and actively support the community. We're doing what we can to make One Niagara a downtown development vehicle and a valued neighbor. But to date, City Hall won't help. They say there's no way, but if development were important, if making Niagara Falls into a bustling, thriving city like that community on the other side, they would find a way. We would be dealing with the mayor and his economic development people, not the city's collection lawyers.
Last week, on the advice of our attorneys, we filed a Notice of Claim against the city to preserve our legal rights. These claims are based on what the legal experts refer to as an ongoing concerted effort by the mayor, along with others not in City Hall, to illegally use the city's power "under color of law" to wrongfully interfere with our rights. The city unsuccessfully tried to close this property in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. It tortures us for allegedly running an illegal parking lot while turning a blind eye to its own tenant's "illegal" parking lot next door. Its lawyers cherry pick the laws to string together excuses for the city's failures while the mayor publicly says "there is no One Niagara Policy." Unfortunately, all this means our lawyers are probably right.
One of our attorneys is Michael Kelly, the former Assistant NYS Attorney General well known for his successful "fraud" prosecutions. His office will be serving demands over the next week seeking to preserve the records of those involved with setting the city's supposedly non-existent "One Niagara Policy."
Maybe there really is no One Niagara Policy. Or, maybe there is some grand development plan for the parcel where One Niagara resides. Working to kill the hopes and dreams of all the people making a living here while we strive to make One Niagara a development success is, otherwise, irrational. So far we have moved forward without any government money. Given some time and a reasonable economic development arrangement with the city, we will continue to put our own resources into this tourism center, continue to pay our taxes, and continue to grow downtown. Just treat us fairly.
Everyone reading this knows of the history of catastrophe at this site. For the city to keep taking the position that it did nothing to contribute to this mess is absurd. The AquaPit was not a natural phenomenon, the hundreds of building code inspections we endured, the dozens of site plan violations pursued against us -- and that we still can't get a simple sign permit -- all cannot be happening without someone of authority knowing.
Yet, my hope is that we can keep out of court yet again. And, that the adults here who care about this city and its future can work together. This is a test of this administration and its commitment to private development. We can work together, solve the problems fairly, and get on with making downtown an exciting place to visit; or we can continue the legacy of failure. We can do it now, and now is the time.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||April 5, 2011|