RESTAINO: Continue the Struggle or Throw in the Towel?

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By: Robert M. Restaino

Candidate for Mayor of Niagara Falls

One persistent question that is often debated by the under-40 year old generation in many communities just like Niagara Falls is simply: “Is it time to move?” Conventional wisdom seems to imply that if the jobs are more plentiful and the quality of life more appealing somewhere else then the answer is to leave. Last summer President Trump even endorsed this strategy when he stated that economics would dictate that Americans were “going to have to start moving” from the nation’s struggling cities and places like Upstate New York. President Trump emphasized this last July, when he said: “I’m going to explain you can leave. It’s okay,”

In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s chemical, carbon, and paper manufacturing provided living wage jobs for the adult population of Niagara Falls. Even though in a state of decline, the aircraft industry, dominated by Bell Aircraft, was still providing great jobs. Tourism was a seasonal endeavor for those who desired to be self-employed. However, due to the development of new technologies, the increasing cost of operating very old production facilities, and severe recessions the economic stability of Niagara Falls collapsed.

What was the strategy developed by City Hall to deal with this economic decline? What was usually offered to entice the companies to stay? Property tax abatements, I.D.A. loans, and the promise of more low-cost hydro-power provided a temporary fix, but the inevitable still occurred. The strategy coming from City Hall was shortsighted and a reliance on what had always worked in the past. Rather than looking for ways to save the “old” industries, City Hall should have challenged itself to find ways to bring new jobs based on new technologies to Niagara Falls. Rather than looking to save one company that formerly employed hundreds of people, City Hall should have been offering inducements to five or six companies that employed 50 people each.

Where was the economic development strategy that capitalized on the cross-border commerce existing between the Province of Ontario and the State of New York, commercial activity estimated at over $30 billion annually! Where was the planning that focused on capturing some of the logistics firms that supported this cross-border economic activity? Where was the collaboration with government leaders in Erie County designed to lure some of the health care related firms that would “spin-off” from Buffalo’s enormous medical campus? This lack of vision has led to a multi-million dollar structural deficit, 1 out of 4 of our city residents living at or below the federal poverty level and 55% of our children under 5 years of age living in poverty, with no activity from the current administration to focus on expanding our local economy.

Over 30 years ago, the leaders at City Hall developed a waterfront revitalization plan that recommended the removal of the Robert Moses Parkway as the principal way of opening up the vistas of the Niagara Gorge and creating a new dynamic for the tourism industry. As was the case with so many planning studies for Niagara Falls, this one found its place on a shelf and the case for removal was barely made. Where was the advocacy from City Hall with the governor and state legislature? Where was the political will to advance competing arguments to the continued maintenance of this ill-conceived roadway? Instead the local leadership was bought off with a form of gambling that denied this community a real share of the financial gain from that enterprise.

My candidacy for mayor is based on the notion that the political and social capital exerted by Niagara Falls, its immediate suburbs, and Niagara County can be a force that transforms the economy of the western portion of our county first; then advancing that growth throughout the county. Yes, removing the parkway is finally underway, but the collaborative effort of Niagara Falls and its neighbors will be what is needed to make sure that the development of environmental tourism is done right. And the leader of this advocacy must be the mayor of Niagara Falls.

So when the millions of tourists who annually visit the Falls are finished walking around the state park, the opportunity for these people to access the gorge must be in place. The development of the infrastructure to get these visitors safely and efficiently in and out of the gorge will be the responsibility of a variety of state government entities. And the individual making sure that everything is in place for this new economy will be the mayor of Niagara Falls. The mayor will be the one to clearly explain the concept of where this city is headed.

My first job as mayor will be to rebuild the trust that must exist between the people of Niagara Falls and City Hall. Trust is the essential ingredient that makes communities thrive and convince people it’s worth getting involved in civic life. When communities thrive socially and culturally, then the economy follows. Developers will risk investing in a city because they know its leadership is focused and won’t change the rules of the game during the course of the project or to suit preferred parties, persons or groups.

It is difficult (and dangerous) to believe that one has all the answers to all the problems, we’re seeing how that plays out in Washington and Albany, suggesting solutions isn’t just about quick answers, just to say “look at me I have a plan” it must be appropriate to the problem at hand. When you hear someone spout off on an issue without speaking with the professionals in the field, or worse yet propose an idea over which they have no control, one has to wonder if that individual can really understand the problems in our city.

It all comes down to the central question of my campaign: “Who is best prepared to govern?”

 

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