The recent economic indicators suggest Niagara Falls is not winning the battle.
According to the state comptroller, Niagara Falls has lost of more than half of its peak population of 102,394 in 1960, has a median income of $31,452, well below the state average of $55,603 and below the median city of $37,607, and a higher poverty rate of 17.6 percent compared with 10.8 percent statewide.
But despite the sorry state of the city, the president of the state’s development agency charged with reviving the Cataract City, Chris Schoepflin, has been rewarded for his efforts with a $120,000 job as Western New York regional director of the governor’s Empire State Development agency in Buffalo.
Schoepflin’s biggest hype job was teaming up with Mayor Paul Dyster and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to land Buffalo developer/political contributor Mark Hamister a prime Rainbow Boulevard parcel to build a transformational hotel that will end up being a Hyatt Place if it is ever built with maybe 20 to 30 jobs, and not really the high-paying jobs the city needs. Construction is not under way just yet, but as they say, it’s in the pipeline.
State officials say Schoepflin has had a hand in $500 million worth of projects—many of them still in the pipeline like Hamister’s Hyatt Place---in his glorious 10-year run as president of USA Niagara. And Schoepflin has done it all in stony bureaucratic style, rarely if ever available to answer questions about doling over public dollars to selected developers.
But Schoepflin was hailed by the governor’s local development kingpin, Howard Zemsky, as the right man for the job as regional director.
“Chris Schoepflin is well qualified to lead the Western New York Regional Office and will provide a regional perspective on economic development,” said Zemsky.
Maybe Schoepflin can do for all of Western New York what he’s done for Niagara Falls. Just look around, folks, and judge for yourself. The biggest attraction to hit Niagara Falls was Nik Wallenda, and the mayor and Schoepflin somehow missed the boat on landing the aerialist daredevil and his family as a permanent attraction to entertain travelers from around the world. Nik is gone, Hamister and the Wonder Falls are in the pipeline, and Schoepflin got promoted. Somehow it just doesn’t add up.
Mayor Paul Dyster joined the bandwagon for the Schoepflin promotion, saying he worked with the USA Niagara president for years and shared his vision for a more vibrant Niagara Falls. Somehow, it just seems like that vision has not translated into a more vibrant city although taxpayers are paying plenty to subsidize developers to take a piece of the falls and turn things around. It just doesn’t seem to be happening unless I’m missing something. Well, at least the frozen water pipes may start to work, thanks to Mother Nature.
But don’t fret, folks. Schoepflin will keep the reins on USA Niagara in addition to his new duties, and the development guru who cut his teeth in the Sabres organization (now that’s a plus, right?) will still be around the Cataract City to share his vision for more hotel rooms that the city doesn’t need.
Well, Chris may be an alright guy, as his bureaucratic colleagues say, but his utter lack of transparency that works from the top down in the current regime wins him no favors from reporters who would like to be able to tell the public how their money is being spent. Neither Schoepflin nor his bosses are willing to comply and prefer to operate in the dark of night, as in the secret selection process of the Hamister Group to build something in downtown Niagara Falls with plenty of taxpayer help and lots of public incentives including grants and tax breaks.
But, let’s bury the hatchet and wish Chris well in his new duties. After all, Niagara Falls didn’t decline in a day, it took years. And I suppose it will take many years to recover its past glory. USA Niagara, even if it performed at peak efficiency, probably couldn’t have turned things around in just a few years. And maybe Schoepflin’s pipeline will eventually turn the tide, turn poverty into gold, and we’ll all be better for it. Those of us here now may never know.