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By Mike Hudson

When the new courthouse building opened on North Main Street two years ago at a cost of $50 million, Mayor Paul Dyster hailed it as a catalyst for change in the city's bombed-out North End.

"We're trying to get some economic development mileage out of the public safety building," Dyster said. "There's a change going on along Main Street brought about by the courthouse."

The courthouse was built with the city's share of slot machine revenue generated by the the Seneca Niagara Casino specifically as an economic development catalyst. Debt service on the bond issue that paid for it costs the city $2.8 million every year. The final payment is scheduled for 2038, at which time the courthouse will have cost a whopping $81.7 million, according to the city controller's office.

But other than John Hutchins' magnificent Rapids Theatre -- a project that would have been done whether the courthouse had been built or not -- economic development in the area over the past two years has been nil. In fact, businesses that were closed by demolitions to make way for the courthouse have either not reopened or have relocated to other parts of the city.

In his State of the City speech last week, Dyster proudly pointed to two future projects -- a proposed new train station on Whirlpool Street and the NCCC Culinary Arts Center downtown -- using the same language of "economic development" he used to justify the courthouse.

He has to, because the only thing the casino money is allowed to be spent on is economic development. But, like the courthouse, the train station and the culinary school threaten to further harm already embattled businesses in the city, remove valuable property from the city's tax rolls and plunge Niagara Falls deeper into a morass of debt it can ill afford.

Currently, there are 10 restaurants open at the casino, and under its proposal, NCCC will open a huge restaurant in what used to be the Rainbow Centre Mall as part of its culinary school. All 11 restaurants will pay zero property tax and zero sales tax, which makes it impossible for restaurants operating under the traditional business model -- hardworking people putting in long hours to pay their taxes and the rent -- to compete.

Just how many fewer customers can The Como, Pete's Market House, Gadawski's or The Polish Nook stand and remain in business? All were socked by Dyster's 3.3 percent business tax increase this year, which is kind of ironic, since a good chunk of that money will go toward subsidizing their competition at the culinary center.

NCCC has also touted the coming of a Barnes and Noble bookstore to its downtown facility. How this will affect Jeff Morrow's 83-year-old institution The Book Corner, which was located downtown until E. Dent Lackey and the crookedest city council ever launched their disastrous Urban Renewal project in the 1970s?

For generations, the focal point of the city among the dwindling number of residents who can read, Morrow's Book Corner was one of the few businesses to hang in on North Main Street over the years. Now Dyster wants to pay back that stability -- and 83 years of paying taxes -- by opening the McDonald's of chain bookstores in a prime city location on a tax-free basis.

If Niagara Falls has learned anything over the past 50 years, it is that government projects are not the secret of economic success. Lackey's wholesale destruction of the city's downtown in order to build a convention center that the city no longer owns, the now-demolished Wintergarden, the long-vacant Turtle and a clutch of other architectural monstrosities speaks for itself.

Still, Dyster focused on the culinary school and the train station in his lengthy State of the City address.

"We're making things happen. We're taking control of our destiny. The state of our city is hopeful," he said.

It's quite likely that Lackey said the same thing when he was running for re-election all those years ago. And it worked, because he got re-elected.

The people who voted for him then were conned, pure and simple. They were gullible and they wanted things to get better, and Lackey said they were getting better, even as he gutted the city.

But hope springs eternal.

"I can assure you our city is standing on solid financial ground," Dyster told the gullible in his speech last week.

Quite a boast for a fellow presiding over a city where 27 percent of the residents live below the federal poverty level and a full 61 percent are receiving some sort of government assistance. A place where more than 20 percent of the available housing stock sits gutted and abandoned and where the growth industry consists of warehousing ex-convicts and generational welfare recipients.

But when you think about it, for him and his friends, the engineering firms and contractors and tavern owners and city employees who donate to his political campaigns, the future probably does look pretty bright. City Administrator Donna Owens earns more each year than the combined amount of five average Niagara Falls residents.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Feb. 1, 2011