Niagara Falls can be a dangerous place for New York governors. George Pataki nearly tripped over himself to get here and announce the AquaFalls project in 1998, a project that never advanced beyond the excavation of a 40 foot deep hole nearly half a city block wide.
He looked like an idiot.
In 2008, Eliot Spitzer used a public pay phone at Shorty’s on Pine Avenue to call a high priced hooker in New York City and ask her to meet him in Washington D.C. that evening. Like many pay phones on Pine Avenue, the one at Shorty’s had been tapped by the Feds and Spitzer was forced to resign in the wake of the ensuing scandal.
Now it is rumored that Gov. Andrew Cuomo will venture to the Falls prior to the November election in order to bolster the troubled campaign of Mayor Paul Dyster, who needs all the help he can get.
Dyster barely survived a primary election challenge by city Councilman Glenn Choolokian, who has announced he’s staying in the race as a write in candidate.
His Republican opponent, popular Pine Avenue businessman John Accardo, is a former Democrat who served as city Council Chairman and defeated incumbent mayor Jimmy Galie and state Rep. Francine DelMonte in primary elections before being defeated himself in the subsequent general elections.
With nearly half the members of his own party having already voted against him, and zero support among the city’s growing Republican Party, Dyster’s chances seem iffy at best, a highly unusual situation for a two term incumbent.
So now, insiders say, Cuomo may personally intervene.
Why? For the money.
Never in the history of Niagara Falls has a mayor given so much money earmarked for the benefit of city residents back to Albany and to local political cronies of a sitting governor.
Dyster set aside $4 million per year of casino cash for Cuomo's “Downtown Niagara Falls Development Challenge” an annual development competition whose winners are chosen by Cuomo. He earmarked more than $1 million per year for the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. which works to promote the businesses of top Cuomo supporters such as James V. Glynn (Maid of the Mist), Jeremy Jacobs (Delaware North) and Global Spectrum.
And Dyster watched silently as Cuomo renewed the Seneca compact for another 10 years without any public input from local stakeholders perpetuating the 75 percent Albany – 25 percent Niagara Falls split of casino revenue.
Another $1.5 million per year of casino money as a donation to USA Niagara, a state agency, which is a subsidiary of Empire State Development, run locally by scandal plagued former state assemblyman Sam Hoyt. USA Niagara made the selection of Mark Hamister, one of Cuomo's top donors and bundlers, to build a hotel project at an inflated price on land donated to him by the city.
The project has become questionable, as several deadlines for groundbreakings and actually closing the deal on the land have come and gone. Cuomo and Dyster both lied with straight faces when they told gullible Niagara Falls voters in 2013 that it was imperative that Hamister needed the approval of city Council immediately so that construction of the hotel could begin in the early spring of 2014.
Millions and millions of dollars meant to improve the lives of people living and paying taxes in Niagara Falls going instead to political hacks and Albany insiders. And Mayor Paul Dyster is the one who makes it all possible.
Little wonder then that Cuomo is pulling out all the stops to see that gets reelected.
Federal prosecutors investigating Cuomo’s marquee program to revitalize Buffalo’s economy have been examining how the government-funded projects were awarded, and whether state elected officials played a role in choosing who would benefit from the major infusion of funds. One is the governor’s flagship Buffalo project, a solar panel factory for SolarCity, whose chairman is Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla Motors. Cuomo has pledged to invest $750 million on this, and claimed it would create 5,000 jobs, 3,000 of which would be in western New York. Construction of this facility is underway, and it could open in early 2016, officials have said.
One subpoena issued in the investigation specifically asks for records related to “any application to and or provision of funding from the Empire State Development Corporation,” a source briefed on the criminal probe said.
The SolarCity project has been used by Dyster and City Planner Tom DeSantis as an excuse for buying a 5.5 acre parcel at 3625 Highland Ave., which currently houses the Niagara Science Museum, for nearly twice its assessed value. Though there is no indication whatsoever that SolarCity has any interest in Niagara Falls, much less Highland Avenue property. Dyster offered property owner Nick Dalacu $165,000 for the parcel, which has an assessed value of $75,000 and may require extensive environmental remediation.
“With SolarCity coming online shortly, it will create a lot of demand for shovel-ready, industrial development sites,” DeSantis said. “The real purpose here is to convert, to regenerate those lands, those acres of former industrial property into property that actually becomes performing.”
City Councilman Andrew Touma, who spearheaded Council approval of the deal, tried to explain the deal in an interview with the Niagara Falls Reporter.
“Well, because it’s an opportunity and the city has the opportunity to purchase the property and then develop it,” Touma said. “And get it ready for, get it ready for, well, development. If there was private industry who was interested in the property and wanted to develop on the property. ”
Is there a “private industry” interested in developing the property? If there was, why didn’t they just buy it from Dalacu, who had it listed on eBay for months without getting a bid?
“All I know is that the timing is right to purchase the property, you know, and get it ready for development,” Touma said. “Timing is everything. The timing is right.”
Yes, timing is everything. And you can bet that, if Cuomo comes to the Falls to stump for his pal Dyster, there will be no press conference at which embarrassing questions about the Hamister hotel deal, the moribund WonderFalls project or the criminal investigation into the SolarCity development can be asked.