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By Mike Hudson

A big shout out this week to Dr. Robert Perry and his crew at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center for their skill and professionalism when I went under the knife for a non-emergency surgical procedure a few days ago.

As it happened, I had just written a lengthy feature story on NFMMC for the paper, focusing largely on the high level of care patients receive at the inner-city hospital, despite a tight budget and a largely impoverished clientele. Rarely do you get to find out for yourself that quickly whether what you wrote was true, or if you were gulled by a sharp public relations pitch.

Gulled I was not.

I'll be 55 years old in a couple of weeks, no spring chicken. And to quote Mickey Mantle, if I'd have known I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself. In any event, over the last few years, I've made the acquaintance of a number of fine physicians and have become familiar with both Niagara Falls Memorial and Mt. Saint Mary's Hospital in Lewiston.

Dr. Komal Chandan, who practices at both hospitals, is in charge of my liver, heart and lungs, while Dr. Thomas Elmer has sole responsibility for my eyes. Now there's Dr. Perry, who has been entrusted with keeping the satanic horns that seem to want to sprout from my head in check. Consequently, I'm still alive, can see as well as when I was a teenager and look like a normal human being.

The next time you want to blame teachers, the school board or the administration for poor test scores turned in by students in the Niagara Falls City School District, you might want to consider a couple of things.

Like the numbers released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau that show Niagara Falls to be the fourth poorest school district out of 98 along what we here call the Niagara Frontier.

How poor are we?

So poor that more than 27 percent of our children are growing up in households below the federal poverty line.

So poor that an astonishing 61 percent of kids attending school qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

These kids have two strikes against them before they even get to school. A majority come from single-parent households, and the problems that plague our widespread ghetto neighborhoods -- crime, drugs and guns -- combine to make learning a difficult accomplishment.

You try doing your homework with the sound of gunfire outside your house. Or with a family member smoking crack in the living room. Even the most highly motivated child, with the best teachers and educational system in the world, would be hard-pressed to achieve under such circumstances.

The abject poverty that a significant percentage of the Niagara Falls population is suffering under is the single biggest problem the city faces. And the answer to that problem isn't more subsidized housing, it's not spending millions on a museum dedicated to the city's phony Underground Railroad history, and it's certainly not the wholesale importation of poor people from other cities and regions to add to those we already have.

No, the solution to the problem of poverty here is jobs. Period. High-paying jobs, low-paying jobs -- it doesn't matter at this point because we're way beyond that.

The state-run USA Niagara Development Corp. has failed miserably in the creation of new private sector jobs here over the past decade, despite spending millions and millions of public dollars in pursuit of that end. And the city's attempts at economic development constitute a bad joke, one in which hundreds of thousands are thrown at contributors to the political campaigns of Mayor Paul Dyster to study things or open tiny saloons.

Dyster's recent 4 percent property tax increase on business here will serve to eliminate a few more in a city where most small businesses have been barely hanging on for years. His very public jihad against Niagara Falls Redevelopment, the One Niagara Building and the developers of the old Inn on the River and the Fallside Hotel and Conference Center has without question made other private developers wary about committing capitol to job-creating projects in the city.

The 80-foot building height cap Dyster placed in his "master plan" for downtown development resulted in one prominent hotel chain breaking off negotiations with a downtown property owner here, and one need look no further than the line of abandoned buildings on Niagara Street, directly across from the casino, to realize the failure of optimistic government programs designed to revitalize the downtown.

Last week, it was announced that the city's premier hotel, the Crowne Plaza, will get its third owner in the past 10 years, as St. Gobain announced it will lay off about 20 percent of its workforce at its Niagara Falls plant.

Neither announcement bodes well for the city's economy.

But not to worry. Dyster left town to go to Washington Friday to "meet with" President Barack Obama at the 79th Winter Meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Since there were only around 250 other mayors there in the same room at the same time, perhaps Dyster got a chance to tell the president that he sees light at the end of the rainbow or a pot of gold at the end of the tunnel, or whatever it is that our creatively minded newspaper columnists are calling it these days.

And just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, Love Canal reared its ugly head again last week.

As the mayor cavorted in Washington -- a trip you and I paid for, by the way -- a contractor working for the rudderless city Water Board cracked into an unused clay sewer main 25 feet below the surface of the ground and once again released dangerous contaminates buried there by Occidental Chemical from 1942 to 1953.

The accident occurred on Colvin Boulevard. For some years I attended Lodge meetings in an old church there, and could tell you stories about a greenish ooze that sometimes manifested itself on the interior basement walls, or about what Jimmy Copia and I encountered when we attempted to plant a row of shrubs in the yard outside the place.

I could tell you that you couldn't pay me to live along that section of Colvin Boulevard, or that every time I went out there I wondered whether or not the people who were living there had been fully apprised of the area's history or the high incidence of cancer former residents have experienced.

But I won't.

Because to remind people of the fact that one of the worst ecological disasters in the history of the United States occurred and continues to occur right here in Niagara Falls might be construed as being negative, and many here think that negativity is the No. 1 problem facing the Falls today.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Jan. 25, 2011