As Mayor Paul Dyster and County Legislator Dennis Virtuoso whine about coverage and threaten to sue the Niagara Falls Reporter, it is weirdly reminiscent of an earlier mayor and other subjects of some of the Reporter's stories.
They all -- to a man and woman -- said what we published was patently untrue, until the fateful day came when it was proven to be true and a sea change came to the people and the institutions involved.
One such story is that of the Maid of the Mist.
Both the Buffalo News and the Niagara Gazette announced last week the launching of the Maid of the Mist fleet in the lower Niagara, an annual event that, in effect, launches the tourism season in Niagara Falls. Both newspapers mentioned the launching was done amid "troubled waters."
What they meant is that, for the first time in 126 years, since the Niagara Falls parks on both sides of the river began operations, the right to operate the famous boat tours, which ferry people past the base of the American Falls and slightly into the mist-drenching center of the Horseshoe Falls, is going out to bid -- on the Canadian side.
Two and a half years ago, the Reporter started digging into the secret lease arrangements between the Niagara Parks Commission (NPC) in Ontario and longtime Maid of the Mist operator James V. Glynn.
Of course, just like Dyster and Virtuoso said of our recent story concerning them, everyone involved in the Maid story said the Reporter was publishing a tissue of lies.
The facts the Reporter exposed, however, directly led to the Ontario minister of Tourism ordering the Maid of the Mist lease out to bid for the first time ever.
For 40 years, Glynn possessed the exclusive right to operate boat tours from both sides of the Niagara, on parkland owned by Ontario and New York. He had purchased the company from an owner who also enjoyed that monopoly right. Until the Reporter published the terms of the leases, the public never knew what they were getting for these leases on park property.
As the Reporter examined details of Glynn's leases, startling revelations emerged about how the NPC -- a 10-to-12-member, politically appointed board -- oversees operations on the 4,200 acres of public land, with attractions, golf courses, restaurants and concessions, in and around Niagara Falls, entrusted to its "stewardship."
All deals, the Reporter learned, to the tune of $87 million per year, were done in secret -- a patent recipe for corruption.
The Reporter learned that in 2007, Ripley Entertainment Inc. thought it might be able to provide a better boat tour than Glynn. Instead of giving Ripley a chance to bid, commissioners quietly stalled Ripley while they drafted a new lease for Glynn two years ahead of time.
Then, with supreme arrogance, they secretly renewed Glynn's lease for a disquieting 25 years, actually reducing his rent from a flat 15 percent of boat sales to a sliding scale that bottomed out at 5.5 percent. This was done at the same time that the NPC was laying off park workers and suffering a decline in revenue resulting in $4 million in annual losses.
What kind of men, we asked, would secretly reduce the biggest lease the parks have, while another company was willing to pay more, then deny it, and then lay off hardworking park employees to pay, in effect, for Glynn's lease reduction?
What kind of man was this Glynn, who could exert such influence over commissioners?
One commissioner, Bob Gale, broke ranks and complained about this "dirty deal." NPC officials responded, telling the mainstream press they made a honey of a deal for the public, but would not reveal the terms. They denigrated Gale. They claimed they did not know anything about Ripley's interest. They got Gale removed from the board.
They never thought we'd get the minutes of their secret meetings and ultimately the secret lease itself. It was a honey of a deal, alright -- for Glynn.
Our reports in part led to a protest at the park by the Parks Unions, a citizens group distributing our newspaper in Ontario, and a businessman filing a law suit against the NPC. Still the commissioners called us liars.
Shortly afterward, we shared with the Toronto Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper, the proof that Glynn's rent had been secretly reduced. They were now covering the story. Other Canadian papers followed.
Soon afterward, Ontario Integrity Commissioner Lynn Morrison ordered a forensic investigation by the Ministry of Finance. Tourism Minister Monique Smith ordered audits of park governance and procurement. Glynn's Maid of the Mist lease was canceled.
On top of that, NPC commissioners -- including every one of those who called us liars -- the very men who secretly worked to secure Glynn a rent reduction, were fired or permitted to resign. The NPC house-cleaning included the chairman and general manager, four commissioners, and the business development director.
The Maid bidding opportunity has attracted big names in the boat tour industry. The Maid is a lucrative venture. According to published attendance figures, with 1.75 million annual Canadian riders, it is the second most popular boat tour attraction in North America, behind only the Statue of Liberty.
Even if Glynn wins the Canadian bid, he will likely pay more in rent. The old Glynn lease, had it not been canceled, would have seen Glynn paying a total of $81 million over the 25-year life of the lease. Sources have told the Reporter that even the lowest bidder will offer rent in excess of $200 million.
At least six major companies have put in bids. A decision is expected any day now.
Among the bidders are Ripley Entertainment, operator of museums and other entertainment venues; Hornblower Cruises, who operate the Statue of Liberty and Alcatraz Island boat tours; Tower Tours, owned by Hagen Choi, who owns the master lease for Fisherman's Wharf; Alcatraz Media, a giant online tourism ticket seller; Hotelier Dino A. DiCienzo; and Mariposa Cruises of Toronto.
As he did in Canada, Glynn has held the boat tour lease on the New York side since 1971. Surprisingly, he pays no rent in New York. In a crazy, convoluted lease with New York State Parks, secretly signed in 2002, Glynn was given the sweetheart of all leases. Instead of the tenant paying the landlord, the people of the state pay Glynn.
He procured the New York lease by circumventing state law, which requires open and competitive bidding, by making the argument that whoever has the Canadian lease for the Maid of the Mist must have the New York lease, since there is nowhere to dock boats on the New York side.
Consequently, based on his own argument, if Glynn loses the bid on the Canadian side, he loses the New York lease. This will be good news for New York. As the rent on the Canadian side will probably jump from $3 million annually to $8 million, it is likely that, through competitive bidding, the New York rent will go from zero to $4 million or more, helping to solve some of the financial difficulties facing New York State Parks.
As an additional benefit, the tours themselves may be vastly improved -- on the Canadian side, at least. In his primitive, bathroom-less, seat-less boats, where riders must stand packed like sardines, getting drenched even when the weather and water are ice cold, Glynn offers only one 15-minute tour.
Some of the bidders have offered ideas such as dinner cruises, downriver cruises, nighttime cruises, covered boats, seats and bathrooms, and also reservations and timed tickets.
Glynn always refused to take reservations or have timed tickets.
Anyone who wanted to take a Glynn tour had to wait in line, sometimes for hours, for a 15-minute tour.
The waters may be troubled for one man who profited for 40 years by paying less than fair market rent, but it is good news for the people of Ontario.
The end result was worth being called a liar.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||May 10, 2011|