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By David Staba

Jimmy Stewart started working in Niagara Falls' tourist economy before anybody heard of the term.

In the mid-1940s, with factories along Buffalo Avenue churning out chemicals used in making war on the Axis and readying peacetime applications for their concoctions, the 8-year-old Stewart's mother ran a tourist home near Pine Avenue and 24th Street.

"World War II was just ending," said the incumbent City Councilman, who faces a pair of primary challenges on Sept. 14. "Soldiers who got married and came to Niagara Falls would stay with us. There weren't many hotels in town at the time, so most people who came to town stayed at tourist homes.

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"My job was to sit on the porch and wait. My mother had a list of people who lived on Forest and Woodlawn and other streets in the neighborhood who also rented rooms out. So after we were filled up, I'd get in the car with the tourists and take them to where they were going to stay. Then I'd walk home."

Earlier this year, Stewart and his wife, Ruijun Chen, bought and reopened a modern equivalent of the tourist home, the youth hostel at 12th Street and Ferry Avenue.

Stewart, now 68, said his experience in the tourism business -- which also includes teaching labor relations at Niagara University's tourism school and a stint driving a tour bus -- and personal stake in the city form the foundation of his re-election campaign.

"We bought the hostel with no state or federal money," said Stewart, the endorsed Democrat being challenged by water authority worker Glenn Choolokian in that party's primary. "This was money out of our pockets, out of our life savings, because we love Niagara Falls. If the tax rate goes up, I've got to pay it, too. I'm watching where my money goes when I make decisions on the Council."

Several Chinese investors have also purchased properties in downtown Niagara Falls due at least in part to Stewart and his wife, who teaches at Niagara University, and is something of a celebrity in her native China.

"My wife was the first person that the Chinese government asked to teach English on TV," Stewart said. "She's sort of like Captain Kangaroo -- everybody knows her."

She met several countrymen who had come to Niagara Falls to consider an investment deal that wound up falling through. After meeting Chen and Stewart, though, they and other investors turned their attention to the Third Street area. In all, seven sales have closed or are scheduled to close in the next couple months.

"I do not get a commission," Stewart said. "I just do it for the benefit of these people and of the city."

Stewart wants to keep the foreign money coming. He said if he's re-elected, his first order of business will be to push to get Niagara Falls designated as a federal foreign investment zone, which would grant a visa to investors willing to spend $500,000 or more in the city.

"That's how we're going to turn this city around," Stewart said. "People talk about managing the city better, but how can you manage anything when you're broke."

Stewart believes foreign investment could help revitalize other long-dormant areas like Main Street, which he said should offer visitors a Chinatown area and other attractions surrounding the planned train station there.

"I believe that in two years, you're not going to recognize Main Street," Stewart said.

While he's come under withering criticism from city employees' unions over his vote to cede control of part of Hyde Park Golf Course to Greater Niagara Sports, Stewart stands by the decision.

"I voted for that because I thought that was what was best for the city and the course, according to what I knew at the time," Stewart said. "We don't have the employees, we don't have the money and we don't have the equipment to maintain the course properly."

Stewart continued, "At this time last year, that golf course took in $503,000. Today, they've taken $400,000 at the same time of year. That's a long way from the million dollars that they used to take in. You can't even play the red nine. We're losing this course and going bankrupt. We had a problem and (with the deal) nobody got hurt."

Stewart said granting expanding control of the course to Greater Niagara Sports protected the city workers assigned there, since their jobs were not eliminated.

"This was done to benefit those employees, not to hurt them," he said.

He also dismissed the opposition of Save Hyde Park, a group of taxpayers planning to file suit in an effort to stop what they consider an illegal giveaway of public land.

"These are a bunch of disgruntled guys that are playing golf for $2 a day," Stewart said. "They've got a good thing going and they don't want anybody to take it from them. They're only working for their own personal benefit."

In addition to squaring off with Choolokian for the Democratic nomination, Stewart is pitted against George Lodick, who already has the Republican and Conservative endorsements, in a primary to determine the Independence Party line.

The seat at stake belonged to Vince Anello, who gave it up when he won last year's mayoral race. In addition to this year's special election, the winner will face another campaign in 2005 to secure a full, four-year term.

Stewart said his willingness to essentially run a two-year campaign for a job that pays $8,000 per year shows his dedication to the post.

"I'll be 73 when that four-year term ends," Stewart said. "So it's not like I'm planning to run for governor or anything. It's not a stepping stone. Helping the city is my goal. I want to do my best. I hope when I'm gone, people say, 'That Stewart did a hell of a job.'"

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Aug. 31 2004