Niagara Falls community leader James Szwedo is calling for citizens’ participation in a public hearing that could have a lasting impact on the city’s future.
The hearing, scheduled for March 13th at 6 PM, at Niagara Falls City Hall, is expected to pit private land owner rights against a city administration that community leaders accuse of being egoistic and self-serving.
The legally required hearing is over the City’s desire to force the sale of private land. The law mandates that the public has input, and it is no secret that Mayor Robert Restaino hopes residents will stay home.
Recently, the mayor had to fight to keep the results of a survey secret from residents, which showed that an overwhelming majority believed the mayor should not spend millions on a plan he cannot fund, except off the backs of taxpayers and diverting money from important government services.
Szwedo, a well known community activist and businessman, urged citizens to come together and have their voices heard.
At the core of the issue is Mayor Restaino’s plans to invoke the legal process of eminent domain to force Niagara Falls Development LLC to sell 10 acres ripped from the center of its 140 acres of land.
NFR plans to build a $1.5 billion high tech data center, bringing 550 jobs and high speed internet to the city but Restaino wants to stop the project with a “take first,” then find money to build an events center on the same land NFR wants to build its Data Center.
NFR wants to pay for its$1.5 billion project with its own money.
Mayor Restaino wants to build on NFR land, after taking it by forced sale, a $150 million events center and parking ramp he calls Centennial Park.
The mayor’s sketch of his unfunded Centennial Park
The 10 acre parcel of land, called on NFR internal surveys as Parcel 0, because it is literally its key frontage property needed to develop an entire 14o acres of holdings, is adjacent to the Seneca Nation casino, hotel and retail complex.
Parcel 0 the treed property in the foreground is across the street from the Seneca Nation’s vast tax free complex.
The mayor admitted at an earlier council hearing that he selected the site to please the Seneca Nation.
If built on Parcel O, the events center will see guests exit the center and amble over to the casino, providing a boost to tribal gaming.
Like all casinos, the Senecas need more than gambling addicts steadily losing money at gaming tables and locals at the penny slot machines. They need a steady flow of new tourists. All casinos are designed without windows or clocks to keep customers inside until they lose the money they brought with them.
While for locals, the casino is a destination, for visitors to an event center for a concert, conference or sports event, the casino is an afterthought. It being the only business in sight at Parcel o should help the Seneca casino, and make the mayor look pretty big in the Seneca leaders’ eyes.
Mayor Restaino will fight to please the Seneca Nation.
Mayor Restaino’s choice for the events center will isolate the events center if built at Parcel 0 away from all businesses except the Seneca’s businesses, which have the happy advantage of operating tax free in competition with one of the poorest and highest taxed cities in America.
The public hearing on Monday will give citizens a chance to speak their minds.
Meantime Mayor Restaino is moving forward with breakneck speed to push his costly unfunded project while community leaders, like Szwedo, believe his rash attempt at taking land will have a negative impact on the city’s poorest citizens.
Restaino admits his impoverished city – marked with blight and potholes making driving hazardous at times- does not have the funds to make the legally required down payment on Parcel 0 if and when the State Appellate court approves his precedent setting taking.
The legal issues however are a lawyer’s dream. The question is can a City take land from a private developer who has plans and financing to build a project 10 times the size, by calling it blight, while the city has no money to build its project?
Parcel 0 is right across the street from the Seneca Nation parking lot and entranceway. NFR’s Parcel 0 is a well kept treed property.
The Mayor has proposed siphoning about 45 percent of the city federal block grant budget for the next 20 years, money used to demolish and clean up true blight, fix roads, and support not for profits that serve the poorest in the city, to buy Parcel 0 for his Centennial Park.
Szwedo has proposed an alternative site for the events center on city-owned land that will save taxpayers about $70 million by eliminating the cost of lawyers to take private land, savve the cost of land and even save the cost of a parking ramp since there is an underutilized parking ramp owned by the city next door to the site that Szwedo proposes.
At 2500 parking spaces, the Rainbow Ramp is actually big enough to accommodate an events center. The mayor proposes to build a mere 500 car parking ramp for his 7000-seat events center. But happily, the Senecas have ample parking across the street.
The challenge for the mayor and possibly the reason he is against for Szwedo’s proposed site – on Third Street and Niagara – is that if built there, visitors of the events center would have the chance to visit attractions other than the casino, and the sprawling Seneca complex.
Visitors at the Szwedo-recommended Third Street and Niagara location for an events center would have many downtown Niagara Falls businesses to choose from. They would also have the State Park, where the majestic Niagara Falls waterfalls would be a few minutes walk away.
The city already owns the land Szwedo suggests for the events center and if the mayor went in that direction, it would end the eminent domain litigation and bring a halt to millions of dollars of legal fees that the mayor’s Buffalo team of lawyers expect to earn over the next five to seven years of litigation.
Mayor Restaino is not veering from his goal. He wants Parcel 0 at any cost and his outside Buffalo team of lawyers are from the prestigious law firm of Hodgson Russ. They are experts in eminent domain and are prepared to fight well armed with taxpayer’s funds to take from NFR its key property.
NFR, owned by Manhattan billionaires and philanthropists Edward and Howard Milstein, is also committing millions to fight for the right to develop its land , assembled over 25 years.
NFR has retained the equally prestigious law firm of Harter Secrest, led in this matter by eminent domain specialist John Horn. NFR is paying for its legal team with its own funds.
This is going to be an epic court battle that will take years to conclude and will cost millions in legal fees for both sides – taxpayers of Niagara Falls and the billionaire funded NFR.
The public hearing on Monday will likely reveal the extent of disagreement between community organizations, taxpayers, land owners and a city administration that believes it must spend first and explains later.
The mayor leads the council majority to the extreme point that observers have considered whether legal action against the council might be effective for legally valid dereletion of duty.
The council has yet to demand that mayor reveal how much he has spent in legal fees to plunge the city into a legal battle with a company that can match them dollar for dollar and may have the law on its side.
Szwedo, an extremely popular local leader who has served the economically challenged city for decades, and other community leaders, like local filmmaker Ken Cosentino, have called attention to the mayor’s fixation on Parcel 0.
The mayor selected Parcel 0 without a site selection study and admits his goal is to help the tax free Seneca Nation even if that takes precedence over the interests of taxpaying Niagara Falls citizens who elected him.
When asked what he will do if, after taking the land from NFR, he can’t get the money to build the events center, the mayor said he will control the land and decide who and for what price he will hand the property to.
With a council unfamiliar with its charter authorized role, there is little doubt the mayor could get approval to even donate the land to the Seneca Nation in return for future considerations.
Perhaps only one man in the city can rise to the occasion to challenge Mayor Restaino. Here is Jim Szwedo’s message to the people:
Here is the President, Niagara Street Neighborhood Revitalization Organization, Inc., Jim Szwedo’s complete message to the people of Niagara Falls.
By Jim Szwedo
On March 13th at 6 PM, the city will hold a public hearing which could change the direction of Niagara Falls for generations to come.
This hearing is once again pitting private development against an egoistic and self-serving city administration that believes their vision for Niagara Falls is the only one that counts.
I really thought those days were behind us, with the end of our previous mayor’s reign. But it appears history is repeating itself.
I have worked hard representing the community for over 20 years. My group and I receive no salaries. We do this because we care about Niagara Falls, and we value the voices of the community.
At previous public hearings, it was obvious that almost every community organization disagreed with the administration’s plan to move his project forward, on the backs of our poorest citizens.
I heard their voices, but the question is, why didn’t the mayor, and the administration listen?
I call upon every citizen who wants their voices heard to JOIN ME on the 13th. If you believe, as I do, that the city can finally move both projects forward – the Niagara Digital Campus and the Centennial Park, through negotiation and not litigation, JOIN ME!
If you believe, as I do, that we need an administration that speaks to its citizens, not lawyers, JOIN ME!
If you believe, as I do, that we have a chance to impact the future of our children through a deal structured by negotiation, cooperation, and public participation, JOIN ME!
If you want the mayor to speak to the citizens, not to lawyers, JOIN ME!
If you want the Council to represent the citizens that elected them, JOIN ME!
And finally, if you think I am totally wrong, JOIN ME and have your voices heard!
I will be there on the 13th to defend my position to the citizens in person. The mayor’s lawyers (whom the citizens of Niagara Falls are paying) will be there to defend the mayor’s position.
As always, I thank you for your consideration, and hope you will be there on the 13th to JOIN ME.