|Nick Dalacu operates a fascinating museum, but the city's real interest
in buying the property is not clear.
We need a little transparency here.
What is the real reason behind a plan by the Dyster administration to purchase a piece of property on Highland Avenue for more than double its’ assessed value?
The Dyster administration is offering to buy the 5.5 acre parcel at 3625 Highland Ave., which includes the Niagara Science Museum, for $165,000. Property owner Nick Dalacu has tentatively agreed to the deal, which will require city Council approval.
The assessed value of the property is $72,200, and casino revenue is being eyed as the funding source to finalize the transaction.
Mayor Paul Dyster’s proposed deal stands in stark contrast to the one he made with developer Mark Hamister, in which a downtown parcel owned by the city and appraised for $1.5 million was contracted to sell to Hamister for $100,000. When it comes to real estate, “buy high and sell low” is apparently the mayor’s mantra.
And the city remains under a “spending freeze” as Dyster directed last month.
Thomas DeSantis, the city’s acting director of planning and economic development, said last week that the purpose of the deal is to save the struggling science museum and provide a location for “spinoff” he anticipates from the opening of a solar panel factory in Buffalo.
“With SolarCity coming online shortly, it will create a lot of demand for shovel-ready, industrial development sites,” he said.
SolarCity said it will invest $5 billion to build the solar manufacturing facility at Riverbend in South Buffalo. The state of New York has pledged $759 million to support the project, much of which is expected to take the form of cheap electrical power from Niagara Falls. The State claims the project is expected to create 3,000 jobs, but in the past the state has proven to be wildly inaccurate in their job creation estimates, sometimes off by more than 80 percent.
There is no indication whatsoever that SolarCity has any interest in Niagara Falls, much less Dalacu’s Highland Avenue property.
The parcel was originally a part of the massive Union Carbide facility in the city’s North End, and was purchased by Dalacu in 2002. He opened his museum, dedicated to antique scientific instruments, and attempted to run his own solar panel manufacturing business, which failed to attract investors and became defunct.
At one point, he said, he tried to unload the property on Ebay, but could find no takers. Still, DeSantis said, the city is concerned about the property being “scooped up” by another developer.
“The real purpose here is to convert, to regenerate those lands, those acres of former industrial property into property that actually becomes performing,” DeSantis said.
Dyster’s proposed capital budget calls for spending $160,000 this year, $100,000 next year, $150,000 in 2017 and $300,000 each in 2018 and 2019 on the project. What will the $845,000 above and beyond the actual purchase price of the property be used for?
The mayor hasn’t said.
What he has said is that he is “looking for partners” on the project. And there are some who may be ready, willing and able.
Salvatore Santarosa owns Buffalo Fuel, a trucking firm that specializes in hauling hazardous materials and the remediation of hazmat contaminated sites.
He reportedly cleaned up a nearby brownfield site for a “green” tire processor.
Additionally, Santarosa has made overtures in the past to Dalacu about buying the property privately, sources told the Niagara Falls Reporter.
Santarosa has worked closely with DeSantis in the past.
Santarosa also worked with recently retired and then rehired Economic Development Professional Joseph Collura to get a rail spur beneficial to Buffalo Fuel’s interests.
There is a rail spur near the site.
State grants may also be available to access with the Dalacu property. The Highland Avenue Superfund site is among the largest in New York State,
Neighboring Tulip Molded Plastics Corp. previously received $5 million from New York State under the Brownfields Cleanup Program for their site.
Because of its’ use by Union Carbide, the Dalacu property is considered a “brownfield.” It has been the target of some remediation work conducted by the state Department of Environmental Conservation some years back, but may need more, DeSantis said.
The site does not appear to be “particularly contaminated,” DeSantis said, adding that city officials “don’t expect to be surprised by any major contamination.”
But if he is wrong and it is more than “particularly” contaminated, the onus will be on the new owner – the City of Niagara Falls.
Some studies are indicated prior to purchase one would think.
Another potential partner is Regional Environmental Demolition (RED), the administration’s most frequently used contractor for demolition work. The company is controlled by Chuck Van Epps and Rico Liberale, a former official in Laborers Local 91 who was identified by the FBI in 2005 as a member of the union local’s “goon squad,” ," a select group of enforcers who sabotaged worksites, administered beatings and conducted violent pickets at non-union construction jobs. He was named as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in court papers after more than a dozen of his friends and colleagues were charged with racketeering.
Liberale was believed to be one of the main informants.
There are three buildings on the parcel, two of which may need to be torn down, DeSantis said last week.
Since Dyster has not hired a city engineer, his “engineering consultant,” Clark Patterson Lee, is in line to earn substantial money performing tests on the property and buildings.
Another potential partner is Global Energy across the street.
While Dyster went to Washington DC to advocate for the “green” company, neighbors complain about the brownish-grey, dusty smoke emitting from their smokestack.
While the silicon they produce is green, the process seems to be anything but green.
Also of interest is that the Dalacu site at 3625 Highland is next to the abandoned fire hall on 3721 Highland that the Dyster administration is spending some $500,000 to rehab for a store and school for Isaiah 61, a not for profit organization with a controversial track record.
Last summer, when Dyster proposed a funding request of $500,000 to the council, he failed to disclose that Isaiah 61’s founder and executive director, James Haid, had just quit the organization and moved out of town.
Many were puzzled by Dyster’s insistence on spending far more than the fire hall property’s value on fixing it for a not for profit that now seems to be almost dormant.
Dyster says he wants Dalacu to stay and continue to operate his museum but is offering only a three year lease to Dalacu which might coincide with the time it takes to remediate the land for whatever plans Dyster has in mind.
Why would the city, which is essentially broke, undertake a nearly $1 million capital project to establish a “business park” when no businesses have shown any interest in such a facility?
Unless there are partners whom the Dyster administration has declined to disclose, the purchase is purely speculative.
Why would the city pay more than double the assessed value for a property whose owner is behind in his taxes and still owes more than $30,000 on a low interest city loan he received to develop the property himself?
Who will get the $845,000 left over after purchasing the property? Why budget such an amount when there is no indication as to how it will be spent?
Dalacu’s museum has been there for more than a decade and the city has never shown the slightest interest in it before. DeSantis’s talk about SolarCity seems to have been pulled out of thin air. Why, in the run-up to the election, is this project being put on the fast track?
Is there a connection between the abandoned fire hall and the Dalacu property that the mayor is not disclosing? He has said that the Isaiah 61 store and school and the Science Museum behind it will create some synergy – but in the middle of an industrial park?
The short duration of the lease – - three years - usually attraction leases are measured in decades – is another curiosity, as are what are the terms of the lease?
Why is the city getting into the industrial park business?
Mayor Dyster has never mentioned this land during the past seven and one half year he has been office. Now suddenly he wants to buy it and keep a museum for three years.
Has anyone made an expression of interest to the mayor, DeSantis or Collura?
If so, what has been promised? Who stands to profit?
Or is this purely a pie in the sky venture?
These are some questions the city Council needs to be asking.
We need complete transparency here and the council should demand complete and fully vetted answers.