For city Councilman Glenn Choolokian, the seven months he’s spent on the campaign trail since announcing he would oppose incumbent Mayor Paul Dyster in the Democratic primary, months of knocking on doors and wearing out shoes, it all gets down to this Thursday, Primary Election Day.
Voter turnout is seen as crucial in the unexpectedly close race, with a light turnout favoring Dyster and heavy voter turnout benefitting Choolokian, who was seen as a longshot until this summer, when a series of missteps and gaffes by Dyster went a long way toward stripping away the illusion of the incumbent as a competent executive.
A new cricket field, frozen water mains on 72nd Street, the Niagara Power collegiate baseball team leaving the city because of wretched conditions at Sal Maglie Stadium and the moribund Hamister hotel deal are just a few of the disasters Dyster directed, helping to make the race far closer than anyone expected.
But for Choolokian, it was the mayor’s decision to have Niagara Falls designated as a distressed municipality in order to seek a bailout from the state Financial Restructuring Board for Local Governments.
“How, with an average of $20 million a year coming into the city treasury from the Seneca Niagara casino, and the highest taxes of any municipality in the state of New York, can the city of Niagara Falls be called a distressed city?” Choolokian asks. “We are not a distressed city, we are a mismanaged city.”
"Our financial situation is getting worse and worse," Choolokian said on Friday. "We're in trouble."
Choolokian said that it is time for a fundamental philosophical change in the way the city is run, with more emphasis on street maintenance, infrastructure and fighting crime and less on things like funding rock concerts, subsidizing operations such as the Holiday Market and building a $44 million train station that even proponents don’t claim will result in an increase in the fewer than 100 riders who take the train here daily.
"We're doing something wrong, and we've got to start doing things different," said Choolokian. "What the people don't understand is that the city Council does not run day to day operations. That is the mayor and his administration. All we do is fund the budget. When the money comes to us we say yes or no."
Choolokian was born and raised in the Falls and remains a man of traditional, down to earth values.
"As I grew up," Choolokian said, "I saw a Niagara Falls that was successful. And I blame 95 percent of the decline we’ve witnessed on politicians. The same kind of politicians win over and over again. We need somebody who will represent the people."
"I am running because I care about my city. I am not a back-door deal-maker. "In the old days, you gave a handshake and that was golden. My father told me the one thing you can't fix is your good name.”
“I'm an old school guy. That's how I live my life” he said. "If I don't know something, I do my research. If I tell you something, it’s golden.”
Choolokian has been highly critical of a widely subsidized plan hatched by Dyster and Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo to actually pay recent college graduates to live in the city for two years. There have been few takers, mostly due to a nearly complete lack of job opportunities.
“Our city has been declining in population for 40 or 50 years,” said Choolokian. “We are losing people left and right, and we are now looking to spend $200,000 to try and keep 20 people here? It’s nuts, and it’s an embarrassment to the city.”
Choolokian said that, with the high taxes, crime rate and lack of opportunity, it’s little wonder Dyster and Piccirillo can’t find people desperate enough to move to Niagara Falls, even for money.
"When you hear about Niagara Falls, you hear nothing good," he said. "Everything about it is bad -- the politics, the incompetence, the basic services. And nothing changes. It's business as usual in a town full of red tape."
“I want to change all that,” he added.
Dyster’s reliance on out of towners for campaign contributors, professional services contractors and city department heads is likewise suspect, Choolokian charged.
"Do the paper trail,” he said. Contribution to Dyster followed by wasteful consultant money. And needless projects. Half the projects in some cases are consultant fees. But this is where Dyster gets his campaign money. Let me ask you, why would outside interests from Buffalo put money into local politicians where they don't live? Why would someone who does not live in Niagara Falls care about how good the government is in Niagara Falls?”
Bringing in out of towners to take away the chances for local candidates and longtime city workers to become department heads has likewise proven to be an unsuccessful Dyster initiative, he said.
"If elected, I will put an end to out of town department heads,” Choolokian vowed. These people do not know Niagara Falls. They don’t know the history, a history that runs very, very deep. If these out-of-town people get the job, they stay and collect a check. If they lose the job, they go back home. That's not commitment."
Dyster’s $44 million train station and fondness for the promotion of rock concerts are also on Choolokian’s list.
"The desire to build a train station ignores present travel habits of those coming to Niagara Falls – which involve the use of automobiles and airplanes," he said. "Was this something that was needed right now, with all of the real challenges facing the city?”
Dyster has spent well over $1 million promoting rock concerts since taking office in 2008, money Choolokian said might just as well been thrown out the window.
"Niagara Falls should not be in the business of paying for concerts,” he said. “If Hard Rock or whoever wants a concert, let Hard Rock pay for it."
But the raw deal the city received when the state negotiated the Seneca casino compact in 2000, while Dyster served on the city Council, the subsequent 10-year extension the Senecas received without any input whatsoever by city officials or residents last year and the squandering of more than $180 million in casino revenue since Dyster took office are particularly galling for Choolokian.
"The Senecas have everything locked up,” he said. “You only have a certain number of customers and the Seneca casino and their shops are grabbing it all. The guy that used to go for a cup of coffee in local businesses is now going to the casino and not only playing slots but getting coffee there, too.”
At fault is the lack of leadership that has characterized the Dyster administration, Choolokian added.
"The jobs they created are not high-paying jobs,” he said. “Everything was negotiated wrong. But that is what you get when you elect unqualified people. You can't blame the Senecas. They negotiated a sweetheart deal for themselves. Our leaders negotiated a terrible deal."
Choolokian, a member of city Council since 2005, is a member of the Steelworkers union and has worked at the city’s wastewater treatment plant for 27 years. He lives on Garrett Avenue with his wife Pamela and children, Hope and Gadge.
And he would most certainly appreciate it if you went out and voted for him on Thursday.