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By Mike Hudson

Attorney and Niagara Falls City School Board Member Johnny Destino will formally announce his candidacy for mayor this Thursday at the Republican City Committee's annual dinner at the LaSalle Yacht Club.

And that's more bad news for Mayor Paul Dyster, who is already facing formidable primary challenges from John Accardo and Carnell Burch.

Destino, who has made headlines over the past year since his surprise upset victory in 2010, will face the winner of the crowded Democratic field going into the September primary. But clearly he sees the mismanagement and lack of accomplishment of Mayor Paul Dyster as the main issue of the campaign.

"Paving streets is not an accomplishment -- it's a responsibility," Destino said. "Our city controller has basically said we're broke and there are no more federal dollars left to save us.

Dyster responded by raising our taxes because the city can no longer afford to provide even the basic level of services expected of it."

Like many young, educated people here, Destino left the area, headed to North Carolina, before being lured back by the opening of the Seneca Niagara Casino.

"When I moved back, I thought the city was going to turn a corner," he said. "The casino project was finally approved and the conversion of the convention center was actually underway. The Senecas moved heaven and earth to get that casino opened in 101 days and, for me, it was a real-life display of the power of a government that knew its proper role -- to improve the condition of its citizens through economic growth."

Destino went to work at the casino as technical services manager, saving his money in order to put himself through law school at Buffalo State University. He passed the bar exam in 2010, shortly before he was elected to the school board.

"I saw a sharp contrast between what the Senecas had done and what the succession of mayors elected since the casino opened were doing," he said. "Building a public safety building costing many millions more than original estimates due to political meddling and lax oversight; City Hall attempting to exert control over private investors' projects by playing games with taxes and certificates of occupancy, and generally throwing casino money slated to spur economic development in the city down a hole of one-off projects and shoddily repaired roads."

Dyster in particular, he said, has displayed an open hostility toward private developers while doing nothing to stem the loss of population and abject poverty that keeps the city from moving forward.

"Anybody who shows an interest in investing in Niagara Falls should be encouraged," he said. "As mayor, I will work with developers to help clear the obstacles preventing them from developing downtown. I agree with Councilman Bob Anderson in that we ought to use casino funds to help lower our tax rates, making us the cheapest place to invest in New York state. Coupled with low-cost electricity incentives, this would attract investment and spur economic growth, bringing with it jobs and a better quality of life for the residents of our city."

Far too many of Dyster's development proposals have involved campaign contributors who haven't followed through on their plans, Destino said.

"I am going to work closely with City Council and ensure that our due diligence is performed when investors request public funds. A fly-by-night operation shouldn't be able to walk into City Hall with a million-dollar project and expect us to cut a check unless they can show us what our return on investment is going to be," he said. "The on again, off again proposal to convert the old South Junior High School into apartments is one such project. We don't have enough people in this city able to pay the more than $1,200 a month in rent necessary for the project to be financially viable."

At the same time, the Dyster administration's highly publicized battles with developers like Niagara Falls Redevelopment and One Niagara have served only to keep other potential investors away, he added.

"There's no question that their words and actions are directed at putting some of these people out of business, driving them out of Niagara Falls," Destino said. "The result is that people who read about it in Bloomberg Businessweek or the Buffalo News are gun-shy about investing here."

Dyster's problems have been compounded by the utter failure of many of the personnel choices he's made. After conducting nationwide searches, Dyster hired Ali Marzban as city engineer, Roger Melchior as fire chief and Peter Kay as economic development director.

Marzban was fired after an investigation by the Niagara Falls Reporter revealed he was unlicensed to practice engineering anywhere in the country, Melchior was fired after collapsing twice and breaking his leg shortly after being sworn in and then posting racist statements on a website, and Kay was fired after three years on the job yielded absolutely no economic development here.

Destino said he would use a different approach.

"When I conduct a national search for candidates to fill positions in my administration, they will be Niagara Falls expats," he said. "My generation has been the hardest hit by the policies and failures of our leaders over the past 30-plus years, and it's time for some of those people to start coming home."

Destino and his wife, Julia, live in DeVeaux. They have three sons, Ciaran, Beanon and Lucan.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com May 17, 2011