Niagara Falls is like roses.
Like last Wednesday, when Sal Paonessa called on the telephone and informed me I was talking to him live on his Internet television show. Many readers know Sal, that intrepid, humorous, longtime radio talk-show host who now stars -- along with the beautiful Rosemary Mariglia -- on the increasingly popular "Sal and Roe Show" seen on the Niagara Broadcast network (www.niagarabroadcastnetwork.com).
Since what we discussed concerned matters arising from articles published in this newspaper, it might interest some to read an abbreviated and somewhat edited version of Sal's full interview with this writer.
Sal: Hi, Frank. We're on the air. Frank Parlato, ladies and gentlemen. Owner of One Niagara. You've seen him in the Reporter. You've seen him in the newspaper. You've seen him getting sued. Are you being sued?
Frank: Yes, the Reporter and I are being sued for libel.
Sal: (Laughs) Yeah. Why? What are they saying you said that's wrong?
Frank: Well, "they" in this particular case is a gentleman by the name of David Cordish.
Sal: He owns the Rainbow Mall.
Frank: Actually, the city of Niagara Falls owns the Rainbow Mall. Mr. Cordish is a tenant.
Sal: It's been closed for years. Is he paying rent all these years?
Frank: Yes, he pays a token rent. The normal rent for commercial real estate is about $10 per square foot, which means a normal rent for the mall -- a 200,000-square-foot property -- would be $2 million a year. He pays $100,000 a year.
Rosemary: Almost nothing.
Frank: Because the rent is so low, he can afford to keep that property vacant until someone comes along and buys out his lease for big bucks.
Sal: But if he has a lease, and that's the rent they've agreed to, doesn't he have the right to do what he's doing?
Frank: In his original agreement, he promised, in return for getting the dirt-cheap lease, he would keep it up as a first-class mall.
Rosemary: There's nothing in that mall now.
Sal: Does it say that he has to keep it up as a mall?
Frank: Yes, in the original lease. Since then he sued to give himself some wiggle room. But if we had a strong law department and we went to work on this, there is a pretty good chance that a judge would look at the entirety of the deal and rule we could evict him.
Sal: You said the original lease. Has the deal changed?
Frank: There has been litigation in the last couple of years. It began when the state comptroller started evaluating his lease. Cordish knew there was a good chance he was on the way out. So he commenced a lawsuit and said it wasn't his fault the mall was vacant. He said the way the city was keeping up the (city-owned attached parking) ramp was his reason for keeping the mall vacant. He vacated the place because it wasn't lucrative for him, but he did not surrender the lease. Instead, he turns it around and sues the city.
Sal: Why is Frank Parlato saying all this and not City Hall?
Frank: They're trying to negotiate with this guy for the Niagara County Community College's Culinary Institute.
Sal: (Councilman) Sam Fruscione was on our show last night and said (the Culinary Institute deal) is dead.
Frank: There are other (officials) who hope to cajole Cordish into taking millions for a piece of the mall. I'd spend a tenth of that money and evict him.
Sal: You told me earlier, Frank, that you are happy about this lawsuit, because you think it's going to give you an opportunity to prove that Cordish is fraudulently in that mall.
Frank: I wouldn't use the word "fraudulently." He's openly and notoriously squatting on our property. It is clear, after a decade of vacancy, he has no intention of developing. He's holding this property waiting for some fool, maybe our own city administration, to pay him money for something he is not entitled to.
Sal: It's across from your (One Niagara) building. If you had an opportunity, would you buy it?
Frank: I probably wouldn't. I'd like to see it developed, though.
Sal: Why? If the mall reopens, it might take business away from you.
Frank: Let's use an analogy. As a resident of Niagara Falls, you have a nice, well-kept house, and your neighbor has a vacant, derelict, run-down property. What does that do for your property value? If the Rainbow Mall were redeveloped, it would be a tremendous boon for downtown.
Rosemary: I agree. The more development, the better it is all the way around.
Sal: Frank, why are you being sued for libel?
Frank: In 240 paragraphs, spread over six articles on Mr. Cordish, there was one paragraph I wrote that was actually, inadvertently, a mistake. That concerned whether Mr. Cordish got a $2 million New York state grant for the construction of a theater on Mayor O'Laughlin Boulevard. The facts are these: Gov. George Pataki announced that Mr. Cordish got the $2 million. The Buffalo News, the Niagara Gazette and our paper, the Niagara Falls Reporter, reported he got the $2 million. Mr. Cordish himself posted on his website that he got $2 million for the construction of what is actually a very small theater that probably could have been constructed for $100,000. I wrote in my article that he may have "siphoned off" some of that money, because there is nowhere near $2 million invested in that theater. It was a mistake, but I'd have to say it's stupid on his part. He put it on his own website that he got the $2 million. He's lying on his own website. He should sue himself for libel. He apparently didn't want the world to know he failed to get the $2 million grant, since apparently he depends on public money in many of his deals.
Sal: Frank, did you take public money for your building?
Frank: No. I don't believe in taking public money. A man should develop on his own.
Sal: How much did you invest in your property?
Frank: I don't know the exact amount, but it has been plenty.
Rosemary: I can say from when you took that building over to the way it is now, I mean, it's like night and day. I've worked in that building for three summers and I had a ball working there. It's a wonderful place for tourists to have a safe place to go, to eat, to shop.
Frank: (As for the lawsuit), I think it's a blessing in disguise. We may ultimately wind up, with disclosures made in the discovery process, getting Mr. Cordish evicted from the mall, which would be a happy day for Niagara Falls. We will be publishing more about this in the Reporter.
Sal: You're going back after him again? You're going to continue?
Frank: I think we have to. Really, I think the truth has to come out.
Sal: What are you doing with your building? Did you partner with Smokin' Joe?
Frank: "Smokin' Joe" Anderson has a giant retail store on the ninth floor, along with an observation area.
Sal: What about the rest of the building?
Frank: The first floor is open. We hope to open the second. I had to sue to get the ninth floor open. I imagine I'll have to sue to get the second floor open.
Rosemary: Why does the city give you so many problems, Frank? Why you?
Frank: I wish I were David Cordish. Then I could just sit back and have people offer me money for doing nothing.
Sal: How come you couldn't get tax breaks or grants for developing that building that was vacant for years with a giant hole in front of it?
Frank: Grant money comes from taxpayers who were never asked whether these taxes should be taken from them. I don't want money taken involuntarily from people to fix my building. I can do that myself.
Sal: Are you battling with the city now?
Frank: We're in litigation.
Sal: How about the State Parks?
Frank: Some folks are not pleased that One Niagara takes business from the State Park -- which, I think, is indirectly the reason why City Hall has been inimical to us. We stepped on the toes of some pretty big campaign contributors and disrupted the status quo, which was, the park got all the business and downtown was a ghost town.
Sal: Can I take a phone call here, Frank?
Caller: Mr. Parlato, how do you feel about Mr. (Carl) Paladino taking over the United Office Building for a dollar? He renovated it and used a lot of his own money, but he got it for next to nothing. Then he subsequently rented out the third floor to a state agency for a lot of money.
Frank: Mr. Paladino did what he said he was going to do. Cordish, conversely, got the Rainbow Mall, got a municipal parking lot, got tax breaks, discounts, and took the public's assets for promises he did not fulfill.
Sal: Do you and Paladino think alike, or are you different types of businessmen?
Frank: Well, I'm a man and he's a man, and he can think for himself and so can I. The difference is, I don't want tax benefits. I believe in old-fashioned Americanism, where a person raises himself by himself, without having to go to the people and say, "Help me do this." That said, I'm pleased Mr. Paladino kept his word and redeveloped the United Office Building after getting the benefits he got.
Sal: Frank Parlato, ladies and gentlemen. There will be more coming up in the Niagara Falls Reporter.
Rosemary: I love the way he said, "This is a blessing in disguise, this lawsuit." I'd be hysterical if I had a lawsuit.
Sal: Honest to God, I know.
Rosemary: But it was for him "a blessing in disguise."