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JUNE 03 - JUNE 11, 2014

Dyster Wants Taxpayers to Pick Up Tab for Failed Government Project

By Mike Hudson

June 03, 2014

This building at 515 Third St. may not need to be demolished just to make more parking for Dyster supporters

Government has screwed things up so badly on Third Street that only the government can now fix it.

That's apparently the logic being employed by Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster and his Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo in their recent proposal to buy two vacant buildings on Third and Fourth streets and knock them down to create a new parking lot.

Parking didn't used to be a problem on Third Street. Swinging upscale restaurants like Café Etc. and the Shadow Martini Bar catered to an affluent clientele and drew diners from Buffalo and elsewhere.

Enter the government, in the form of the Irene Elia administration and the state agency known as USA Niagara Development, which was foisted on the city by then Gov. George Pataki.

Together, they hatched the idea of the "Third Street Entertainment District," a more than $4 million project designed to turn a two-block stretch of the side street into something spectacular.

The sidewalks were widened in a way that all but eliminated on-street parking, and with no city or private lots nearby, visitors were forced to park in crime infested alleyways or beyond walking distance in the often inclement weather.

The construction project itself took its toll, as the entire street was shut down for the better part of a year and people just stopped coming. Café Etc., Shadow and other business went dark and there were more vacant buildings than before the project.

For years afterward, the street hobbled along, destroyed mainly by government meddling.

Then along came Dyster, with loads of casino cash that he liberally doled out to friends and campaign contributors like Michael Lewis, Craig Avery and Shawn Weber.

Avery, a Lewiston businessman who has given generously to Dyster, pulled down $355,000 in city and state grants and loans to open various things in a Third Street building he purchased for $180,000. Earlier this year, he went back to the trough and put in for a $40,000 grant for the renovation of four apartments at the building through the city's Rental Rehab Program.

While he was at City Hall, Avery also took the time to apply for another $20,000 to repair the outside of the building through a facade program administered by the city's Community Development Department, which was funded by a state grant awarded last year.

And Weber snagged $100,000 to open his 99-seat Wine on Third saloon. He has since opened the Pizza Bistro, a stroke of genius given that there have never been enough pizza parlors in Niagara Falls, and collected more grant money.

Not to be outdone, former Democratic Committee Chairman Michael Lewis received $30,000 in city grants for building renovations and system upgrades at 444 Third St., and to put a coffee shop in the building. He also was approved for a $100,000 grant from USA Niagara Development.

Lewis, a school psychologist in the Niagara Falls City School District and a campaign contributor to Dyster, got approved for $130,000 in public money for a property he purchased for $122,500 at 444 Third St.

"I've always wanted to open a coffee shop," Lewis said.

Wouldn't anybody if taxpayers foot the bill?

Dyster's proposed parking lot would directly benefit Avery, Weber and Lewis.

But should the city be in the business of deciding which saloon, coffee shop and pizza parlor owners and landlords get startup money and free parking provided at taxpayers' expense?

By Niagara Falls standards, Avery, Weber and Lewis are rich men.

Why is Dyster throwing our money at them like there's no tomorrow?

Meanwhile, signposts installed a decade ago as part of the taxpayer-funded Third St Entertainment District project stand broken, and decorative grates are rusty, if they remain at all. The wood-paneled garbage cans and benches are rotted or gone. Brick pavers at crosswalks had to come out because they were installed improperly and created a trip hazard. The city put asphalt over them as the street became a series of bumps and sink holes.

There are more vacant stores now than before.

Dyster thinks that, by throwing more taxpayer money at it, government can fix the problems government created.

In particular, the parking problems Avery, Weber and Lewis are now facing.

To that end, he proposed spending $165,000 for a former medical building located at 515 Third St. The resulting parking lot would fit around 25 cars, almost the number of spaces eliminated along Third Street when the city and state stepped in.

"One of the problems we've had on Third Street is that we've had a lot of good businesses open there, but in isolation," Dyster said, apparently not seeing the irony in the fact that the isolation is due in large part to government involvement.

Piccirillo said demolition costs for the Third and Fourth street buildings would be paid for with grant money awarded to the city by the state's Regional Economic Development Council in 2012 and would likely not require the use of casino revenues or general fund dollars.

In other words, the taxpayers will still be footing the bill, but the money will be channeled through a different government agency.

City Planning Board Chairman Rick Smith spoke for his colleagues in opposition to the plan, likening it to the failed urban renewal project of the 1960s and '70s that leveled the city's downtown and created the vast emptiness it remains today.

"I just can't see the need for another parking lot," Smith said. His colleagues agreed.

The board voted unanimously, 6-0, to table approval of the purchase, much to Piccirillo's dismay.

"It's all part of our 10-block strategy," he argued.

Pointing out that the building would cost as much as a quarter of a million dollars simply to bring up to code, Piccirillo told board members that allowing it to fall into private hands would be a mistake.

"It's really not reasonable for renovation," Piccirillo said despite his admission that a private developer has shown an interest in acquiring the property. "It's a difficult building."

Sure Seth. You know more about it than the guy who's willing to invest his own money.

Has Third Street become some sort of private club, where Dyster's cronies are not only given startup money and free parking, but protected from competition by a City Hall willing to bid against a private developer with plans of his own?

On Third St. the Government widened the sidewalks and took away parking., Now the government wants to demolish buildings to replace the parking lost when they widened the sidewalks.





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