By Mike Hudson
How closely was Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster involved in the process that led to the opening of the Niagara County Community College Culinary Institute here?
In numerous statements made over the past eight years, he’s given the impression of being single handedly responsible for the facility.
Alleged bid rigging during the actual construction of the school — housed in what used to the Rainbow Centre Mall — is now the focus of an investigation by the FBI that led NCCC President James Klyczek to resign last week.
But back in 2008 Klyczek and Dyster were thicker than thieves. At that time, Dyster told reporters the institute would provide an economic boost for downtown by bringing in young people and training a qualified hospitality workforce. Dyster said a deal was being worked out and he would ask the city Council to match the county Legislature’s $1.5 million commitment.
“We’ve been enthusiastic about this project from the very beginning,” Dyster said. “It’s just a question of how to make it happen.”
Later that year, the city threw $1.5 million into the project, and in 2012, upped the ante by an additional $1 million.
In 2009, while battling with former state Sen George Maziarz, who wanted the center to be in Lewiston, Dyster said, “This is a thoroughfare that leads from the state park where we get six to eight million visitors a year into the heart of the city. So it’s a perfect place to locate if you want to show it off to the world.”
In an op-ed written for the Niagara Gazette in 2010, Dyster again crowed about his involvement with the project.
“Under my administration, we’ve made major progress on bringing the Niagara County Community College Culinary Institute to our tourist area, giving us a chance to resurrect the Rainbow Centre,” he wrote.
“If somebody hasn’t been [here] in 10 years, and they come downtown, they’re clearly going to see a downtown that is in the midst of a transformation,” Dyster at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Institute in 2012.
“To me, it’s starting to look like a real American city,” he added. “If you were to take me through a time machine [from 10 years ago] to today, my reaction would be, ‘Wow. We’re finally on the right track?”
And even in light of the current FBI probe, Dyster remains upbeat.
“(A)s the mayor of Niagara Falls and as a supporter of the Culinary Institute locating in Niagara Falls, from the moment that became a possibility, this has been very, very positive for the city. I think it’s been very positive for the community college, and I think it’s been very positive for the students the community college serves,” he told reporters.
At the heart of the scandal are contracts awarded through NCCC for the interior refurbishment of one-third the former mall into the cooking school.
The law firm of Harris Beach was chosen to handle the legal work, Cannon Design got the engineering contract and LPCiminelli was picked to do the actual construction.
At the time, former county GOP head Henry Wojtaszek was working for Harris Beach as an attorney and sitting on the NTCC Board of Trustees.
In a March plea bargain, Wojtasek pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor election law violation believed to be related to campaign fundraising on behalf of former state Sen. George Maziarz, who was indicted on the same day.
Michael Mistriner, Cannon Design’s architect on the project, is the brother of Mark Mistriner — who headed the Culinary Institute.
Cannon received nearly $1 million for the work, and industry sources told the Niagara Falls Reporter that Cannon reaped a windfall on the contract, a figure well above well above the state average for an interior retrofit of an empty facility..
And Kevin Schuler, an NCCC Board member at the time of project, is one of three former officers of LPCiminelli facing indictment over an unrelated bid rigging scheme involving the Buffalo Billion project.
Dyster’s relationships with both LPCiminelli and Cannon Design go back to before he was elected mayor. In 2007, during the mayoral capaign that would put him in office, sources told the Niagara Falls Reporter that Dyster and campaign aides repeatedly and secretly met with Ciminelli representatives in the runup to the election.
Ciminelli had already been chose to build the courthouse on North Main Street, but Dyster’s first move on the day he took office was to inexplicably fire former city engineer Robert Curtis, thus eliminating any official oversight on the project.
The city Council was barraged with change orders from Ciminelli officials and costs ballooned, eventually reaching $46.5 million.
In addition to the Culinary Institute and the courthouse, other high profile Ciminelli construction projects here include the Observation Tower in Niagara Falls State Park and the new Maid of the Mist Winter Storage headquarters in the Niagara Gorge.
In June 2014 Dyster held a $250 a plate fundraiser at the Red Coach In on Buffalo Avenue. Among those in attendance was Cannon Design’s Michael Mistriner, who could afford to go after having made so much on the Culinary Institute project.
In the end, the Culinary Institute cost $26 million. Is it a success?
Not by any standard you can think of. Promised enrollment of 1,000 students was never reached and today there are just 378 students there. And tax forms filed with the IRS show that the Culinary Institute lost $953,740 between 2012 and 2014.
The feds have seized all records relating to the project from NCCC, and the investigation is ongoing.
The college’s Board of Trustees has hired a law firm to investigate allegations related to the Culinary Institute and a public relations firm to help handle the negative publicity.
A spokeswoman for SUNY, Holly Liapis, said that SUNY officials are “closely monitoring” the investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office into allegations of bid rigging.
Of course, Dyster could have been an innocent bystander in all this, oblivious to what was going on before his very eyes despite his close associations with Ciminelli, Cannon and Klyczek.
But the question remains in regard to one of Dyster’s signature projects.
What did the mayor know and when did he know it?