Last week, Thomas Herrera-Mishler announced his resignation as president and CEO of an organization called the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy.
While the names "Herrera-Mishler" and "Buffalo Olmsted" may not exactly ring a bell with most Niagara Falls residents, there's a story to be told here, a story of conflicts of interest, misguided priorities and the corrosive influence of big money from Buffalo on our economy and quality of life.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's $40 million Niagara Falls State Park "Landscape Improvements" plan was created without public input, is being implemented without having undergone required environmental review under SEQRA, and has resulted in violations of both the federal Clean Water Act and the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 with Canada, all documented in this newspaper.
By the governor's hand, century-old trees were felled and carted away to make way for more blacktopped parking lots and trolley lanes. Last year, Three Sisters Islands were leveled, paved over and fenced off. Sprawling walkways designed by a Saratoga, NY-based architectural firm were constructed with granite imported from an Albany-area quarry (both of which had given generously to Cuomo's re-election campaign), and soon an upgraded south Moses Parkway will provide a permanent bypass around the city and into the park.
Eight million tourists a year visit Niagara Falls State Park, yet the city of Niagara Falls is one of the poorest in the entire northeastern U.S. Vacant lots, boarded-up houses and abandoned storefronts, breeding all manner of drug activity and petty crime, abound just a short distance from the park entrance. This blight is due to the fact that tourists arrive at the park on a dedicated roadway, park on one of 1200 state parking spaces, eat, sightsee and purchase souvenirs solely within the confines of the state's park, and then leave the area on the same parkway with little need or reason to spend time or money in the city.
Walking through Niagara Falls State Park, you'd be hard-pressed to find a shred of evidence that the park was designed by the renowned American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who decreed that the park should respect God's masterpiece, the falls. He didn't want cars, buses, parking lots, ticket booths, coin-operated binoculars, statuary, tulip beds, wifi stations, food stands, restaurants, gift shops, signage, trolley stops, paved macadams, fences or photo booths cluttering up his park. He wanted the falls to be framed by a natural setting, and commerce and related activities to take place in, and benefit, the surrounding city.
There are several Olmsted-designed parks in the city of Buffalo, including Riverside, Cazenovia, MLK, Jr. and the world-famous Delaware Park.
The key difference between Buffalo and the city of Niagara Falls, and the reason why Buffalo is in a position to benefit from the activities and advocacy of a thriving and influential non-profit organization like the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, is that the city of Buffalo actually owns its Olmsted parks.
On the other hand, Niagara Falls' Olmsted park is owned by Albany politicians who are paid off by corporations like Delaware North, which operates food booths, ice cream stands and the Top of the Falls restaurant in the park. And it turns out the politicians aren't the only ones paid off.
"It is a good balance between the Olmsted principles of creating a naturalistic experience while at the same time accommodating 8 million visitors a year," stated Buffalo Olmsted president Herrera-Mishler at a March 14, 2013 ribbon-cutting ceremony in Niagara Falls State Park celebrating the devastation wrought on Three Sisters by Cuomo and his State Parks agency.
Following up, I asked President Herrera-Mishler to explain to me why Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy has always been silent on the total disregard of State Parks for the Olmsted plan for Niagara Falls State Park, to which he responded, "Hi Jim, I wish we were more involved with Niagara Falls State Park. Such an important part of the Olmsted story in WNY... I should mention a couple of things about DNC (Delaware North Companies). They support the Olmsted parks in Buffalo generously and in various meaningful ways...cool trips for auction at the annual Olmsted gala and an annual cash donation. Mr. And Mrs. Jeremy Jacobs (Jacobs is sole owner of the privately-held Delaware North) were awarded the Olmsted stewardship award by the National Association for Olmsted Parks last year..."
Delaware North's corporate logo appears on Buffalo Olmsted's web site and its monthly newsletter, where it is lauded as a "Major Sponsor" and is credited with providing "Generous Ongoing Support".
Appearing in Western New York on September 10, 2014, the day after his victory in the Democratic primary, Governor Cuomo was honored at a fundraising event at Jeremy Jacobs' opulent East Aurora estate which, ironically, was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.
Tickets went for $25,000 per couple.