By Mike Hudson
A $3 million fund to assist new economic development projects in Niagara Falls was announced last week. State Sen. Rob Ortt and Assemblyman Angelo Morinello orchestrated the gift basket.
The money was obtained through the last two state budgets, but its original source was the state’s share of the Seneca Niagara Casino’s revenues.
The money, dubbed the Downtown Niagara Falls Tourism Target Zone program, will be administered by the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency. Its board will vote on all the grants recommended by a steering committee of NCIDA staffers, board members and other local leaders, according to Steve Brady, IDA chairman.
That is definitely a departure from ill-starred tradition, in which Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, his shameful community development department and his laughable economic development department have blown through tens of millions of dollars since he was elected in 2007 as the city has plummeted into economic decline.
In fact, city officials and the IDA have often engaged in an open campaign of public relations warfare. Dyster has argued that the IDA shouldn’t be allowed to grant tax credits and IDA officials have argued back that, given Dyster’s monumentally dismal record as an agent for economic growth, somebody’s got to do something.
In connection with the $3 million, Ortt said casino revenues have been declining, and it’s hoped more development around the casino might improve that situation.
“How do you bring those revenues up? You’ve got to get more people going to the casino,” he said.
But Morinello said the idea of using what was originally the Senecas’ own money to redevelop the area around the casino is not a bargaining chip in the current contract dispute that saw the Senecas cut off payments to the state and localities, including the City of Niagara Falls.
“This has nothing to do with it,” Morinello said. “That’s an issue that’s a legal matter between the president of the Seneca Nation and the governor. These are additional development funds.”
Eligible projects must be located within two miles of the casino, but they cannot be built on the land controlled by the Senecas, and hotels are not eligible for the aid. The grants are limited to 25 percent of the total cost of a project, but the minimum grant is $50,000. Also, applicants must be able to fund 20 percent of their project’s cost on their own.
Brady said a project funded through the new fund could be eligible for tax breaks or other incentives through the NCIDA, if it’s a project that otherwise would qualify.
All of this could be great news for Canadian hotel magnate Michael DiCienzo, whose family owns the Sheraton at the Falls, Days Inn at the Falls, T.G.I. Friday’s, the Rainforest Cafe, Starbucks and the Sweet Treats Ice Cream Shop here, as well as holding significant assets in Niagara Falls, Ont.
DiCienzo has offered up a $70 million dollar proposal to add six additional floors to the Sheraton with 200 oversized four-star suites on top of his existing hotel, and to construct a new indoor water park on a parcel behind the hotel, which is located at Third and Old Falls Street.
But despite the fact that Dicienzo has a proven track record of developing both hotels and water parks, his proposal has fallen on deaf ears, both at City Hall and the offices of Niagara USA Development.
Why? Because Mayor Dyster, Empire State Development bigwig Sam Hoyt and Gov. Andrew Cuomo preferred, three years ago, to award a contract to Delaware North and Uniland Development to build the same sort of resort Dicienzo proposed. Officials said they would underwrite the project with up to $75 million in taxpayer’s money.
Uniland and Delaware North are both significant campaign contributors to Cuomo and his underlings. As for DiCienzo, he says he’s never given a dime to a New York politician.
Uniland and Delaware North have since become involved in a bitter and acrimonious dispute. Now Uniland is the sole developer in the project know as “Wonderfalls,” which – since the announcement three years ago – is no closer to reality now than it was then.
In any event, informed sources told the Niagara Falls Reporter this week that the $3 million secured by Ortt and Morinello was specifically aimed at helping DiCienzo make his dream become a reality.
“We really want this to happen, but we’re looking for some assistance like other developers are getting,” DiCienzo said. “Generally they provide assistance in the neighborhood of ten to 20 percent of the project. That’s been pretty much typically what they have done in the past with other developers.
“The state is saying it can’t provide assistance because our project would be competing with a state assisted property nearby,” he added.
The Uniland project remains a pipe dream.
Like his father, the legendary Dino DiCienzo, Michael DiCienzo is a can-do guy who, once he gets his ducks in a row, there will be a shovel in the ground.
Ortt and Morinello apparently know this. The fact that Dyster, Hoyt and Cuomo do not will be forever a part of their shameful Niagara Falls legacy.