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Quick hits from Niagara Falls State of the City

By Charlie Specht

Mayor Paul Dyster tonight gave President Obama a run for his money as far as long speeches go, delivering a 50-minute address to supporters in the city's new culinary institute.

Dyster's speech touched on nearly every aspect of city government. For a play-by-play of the highlights, check out my Twitter handle @CharlieBuffNews. 

Here's a few additional quick hits quoted directly from the speech:

On new downtown housing program: "We have lost 50 percent of our population over 50 years -- the largest population loss of any city in New York State...If we want to survive as a city we need to find ways to keep talented young people here, and get them to come from other places." (More on this in Friday's Buffalo News)

Continue reading "Quick hits from Niagara Falls State of the City" »

Niagara Falls State of the City address tonight

By Charlie Specht

Niagara Falls' new culinary school is usually buzzing with young people in chef whites. Tonight, they'll be replaced by politicos in suits as Mayor Paul Dyster gives his annual State of the City address.

Dyster is expected to focus on recent progress in downtown development, specifically tourism drivers like the culinary institute and a mixed-use hotel planned across the street. 

Continue reading "Niagara Falls State of the City address tonight" »

Maid of the Mist contract, Hornblower letter

By Charlie Specht

Here are some public documents to go along with today's story on the future of the Maid of the Mist and its competitor Hornblower Cruises:

Agreement between the Maid of the Mist and New York State:

Download MOU between OPRHP NYPA and the MOTM 11-30-2012

Letter from Hornblower Cruises CEO Terry MacRae to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo:

Download State of NY MOTM Request 121912

 

A reader's view of the Robert Moses

State leaders -- and now U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins -- are focused on plans to remove two stretches of the Robert Moses Parkway in Niagara Falls.

But one reader wonders what will become of the southernmost part of the Moses, which carries tourists into the city from the North Grand Island Bridge. 

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To be clear, that stretch -- which fronts what Higgins called the "chemical alley" of manufacturing plants -- will remain even as the other two areas are reconfigured or removed. The state would be slow to tear out that portion, especially since it funnels millions of travelers into Niagara Falls State Park each summer.

But the reader sees the four-mile concrete ribbon a bit differently, and his thoughts may be a glimpse into the minds of others who drive along the Moses each year:

"Almost two years ago, I moved to the Buffalo region from the New York City area, as my wife grew up in Amherst and wanted to move closer to family," the reader writes. "I had never been to Niagara Falls before, and the first time was an eye-opener as I found filth, industry and run-down/abandoned buildings – the complete opposite of the Canadian side.  I never knew of this shame before, only that Niagara Falls was a beautiful wonder of the world.  Never was I aware of the reality of Niagara Falls.

"Each time friends or family visit from out of town, seeing the Falls is a requisite trip," he continues.  "Each and every time, the expression as we drive along the RM Parkway is the same – disgust and amazement of the industry spewing waste into the air and (impossible to avoid) water and ground.  Growing up outside of the Buffalo/Niagara geographical area, we didn’t know that the Niagara Falls that comes to mind is completely different from the reality."

And his thoughts on the Moses' southern strip?

"At this point, there’s just no way I’d ride my bike along the waterfront and think to myself, “Isn’t that a beautiful chemical plant?”

Full Higgins report on Niagara Falls waterfront

By Charlie Specht

Rep. Brian Higgins this morning pledged to help revitalize the Niagara Falls waterfront, which is cut off from the city in many areas by the Robert Moses Parkway.

In the report below, Higgins says the New York Power Authority bears responsibility for funding efforts to remove the Moses. The report contains footnotes to back up his claims, drawing research from local newspaper articles and author Robert Caro's famed biography of Moses.

To read the entire report -- and Higgins' letter to Power Authority Chairman John Koelmel -- click here

New Niagara Greenway projects have Buffalo flavor

By Charlie Specht

As I write this, Niagara River Greenway officials are in Grand Island discussing five projects aimed at studying or improving public access to the Niagara River. 

But unlike most projects that appear before the Greenway board, all five projects have a decidedly Buffalo and Erie County flavor.

Three involve the industrial heritage of Buffalo's Old First Ward, specifically the Silo City grain elevator area and the historic Edward M. Cotter fire boat. Another includes waterfront landscaping in the Town of Tonawanda, while the last is a study of the types of fish swimming along the river from Buffalo to Grand Island.

All the projects are seeking funds from the Greenway commission, which was created to guide the development of a greenbelt along the river's edge. Commissioners will determine at 3 p.m. whether the projects align with the Greenway's vision, while another board will later determine funding for the projects. 

To project proposals -- in their entirety -- can be viewed by clicking on this link

Niagara Falls' credit rating downgraded

By Charlie Specht

The casino gambling dispute between the state and Seneca Nation of Indians has thrown Niagara Falls into a budget crisis.

Now it may affect the city's ability to borrow money.

Moody's credit rating service on Wednesday announced a credit downgrade for the city due in part to the unresolved casino dispute and its affect on the city's cash flow.

CityLogoMoody's dropped the city's credit rating two slots -- from A2 to Baa1 -- because of what it saw as "significant declines in the city's general fund liquidity and reserve levels...due primarily to budgeted casino revenus that have not been remitted to the city."

High unemployment and a poor population that is half its peak level of the 1950s were also factors in the downgrade, Moody's said, and municipal debt doesn't help, either. The city borrowed to pay for its Main Street police station under the Anello administration -- a $5 million yearly payment it paid with the casino funds.

Moody's names as strengths the city's proximity to the international border, which Canadians have been streaming across to spend their money, and the millions of yearly tourists who come to the falls each year.

And a resolution to the casino revenue dispute -- it's now in arbitration -- as well as a more balanced general fund (presumably with less dependence on the casino money) would improve Niagara Falls' rating, the credit agency states.

But the $65 million in long-term debt remains the key issue for the city's downgraded credit status. The city is owed more than $60 million in slot machine revenues by the Indian nation -- money that would no doubt help to pay down that debt.

(Photo courtesy of Niagara Falls Police Department)

Questions about Falls garbage-to-energy plan

By Charlie Specht

Niagara Falls officials are excited about Covanta Niagara's new plan to haul in New York City's trash for burning at its Falls industrial plant.

But environmental advocates say more questions need to be answered before Covanta receives nearly $8 million in county tax breaks for the project.

A public hearing on the tax breaks will be held at 3:45 p.m. today in Room 17 of Niagara Falls City Hall, 745 Main St.

In attendance will be Amy Witryol, the two-time candidate for state senate who has raised concerns about the garbage-burning project.

Witryol says there has been a "wholesale lack of information" about the project, specifically about plans for a rail service expansion and a new 190-foot smokestack to be built along the city's industrial row. 

She also questions why the city has not called for a host agreement that would require local approval of any changes to the existing plans, which she views as a key stipulation for a city with a sad environmental legacy.

Covanta says it plans to ship in 300,000 tons of New York City garbage to be burned for usage by the new Greenpac paper mill and other industries.

The $30 million expansion project will create 23 new jobs, company officials say, and retain 86 current jobs, for a total community benefit of more than $37 million.

Witryol, though, questions the relevancy of those job-retention figures, especially in light of the company's recent $165 million debt refinancing through an IDA-approved bond issue.

She believes the tax breaks, instead of retaining and creating jobs, will instead "perpetuate a type of disposal that is not one of those preferred by state and federal regulators, and not even our own locality."

Company officials no doubt disagree. You can have your say later today.  

England's take on Niagara Falls

A top British newspaper is the latest national news organization to pick up on a new Niagara Falls revitalization plan first reported here in June.

In an article titled, "Decline and falls: An American city in crisis," The Daily Telegraph explains the controversy that has surrounded a plan to pay the student loans of college graduates who move to Niagara Falls.

We've already written a lot about the plan but what struck me are some of the raw numbers cited in this report:  20 percent of city residents living on food stamps; nearly one-fifth of the city's homes sitting vacant, another fifth unsafe to occupy.

Those are figures that people on the street grapple with every day, even as city and state leaders tell them progress is moving along quite nicely. 

Like Buffalo, the Falls can be sensitive to outside criticism, and I've found there's at times a distrust of anyone who didn't grow up in the city. In a self-contained environment like that, it's useful every once in a while to be reminded what others think of the city.

Here's how the Telegraph puts it:

"Today, the city appears almost to be a shell. The streets are lined with boarded-up shops and derelict houses. Bars and restaurants are few and far between. Some neighbourhoods are nearly empty...The Seneca Niagara Casino looks other-worldly alongside the crumbling homes and empty storefronts."

The paper writes that "such a dismal situation demanded a radical solution" like the student loan initiative.

The latest news on that program came out last week, and we will keep you updated as the program goes into effect this year. 

Falls City Council will have new chairman

By Charlie Specht

It appears Glenn A. Choolokian will soon become the next chairman of the Niagara Falls City Council.

Choolokian said he expects to be nominated for the position Monday, when the council will officially vote on its new leader. 

Two other council allies -- Bob Anderson and Sam Fruscione -- have pledged their votes to Choolokian, so barring a last-minute surprise the two-time councilman will be the next leader of the council. Just three votes are needed to secure the chairmanship.

Choolokian made headlines earlier this year because of a somewhat secretive pay raise he received from the Niagara Falls Water Board. But his political profile rose in recent months as the lead architect of budget cuts that saved jobs and eliminated a tax hike proposed by Mayor Paul Dyster.

Choolokian, 47, has spent two decades as a buildings and grounds worker at the water plant. I'll have a longer profile of him in the Niagara Weekend section on Sunday. Pick one up.

(On a related note, Councilwoman Kristen M. Grandinetti has announced she will run for re-election this year. She is one of three lawmakers -- Charles Walker and Fruscione are the others -- who are expected to run in November.)