By Tony Farina
Simply stated, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has now become part of the story of the competing Niagara Falls development projects, one supported by the mayor and the second by Niagara Falls Redevelopment (NFR).
In denying a FOIL request by the Niagara Gazette, HUD said after consulting with the city that it could not release three documents containing Centennial Park “financial” information, including “financial assumptions, real estate budget, and source of funds.”
The administration of Mayor Robert Restaino had objected to release of the information, saying it could negatively impact the ongoing legal bid by the city to acquire about 10 acres of NFR land on John Daly Blvd. through eminent domain to accommodate the $150-million Centennial Park project the mayor favors over a $1.5 billion privately financed digital data center proposed by NFR on the site. Should note here that even after winning round one of the eminent domain fight for Parcel 0, the mayor has launched a feasibility study for possible other sites, a seemingly strange act given all the money spent to grab NFR’s land.
The HUD denial requested by the city adds fuel to the debate because so far, despite heavy legal fees and even uncertainty about the site, there’s no identifiable financial backing for the mayor’s events center and he doesn’t want to disclose any of the financials, even getting HUD to support the continued secrecy. The public is left in the dark about the available funding and so much more, including the site, and so are lawmakers.
Who knows what the mayor has up his sleeve but he remains stubbornly committed to the project even when NFR’s data center could open a whole, new technology environment for Niagara Falls, creating 500 full-time jobs and, according to NFR’s Roger Trevino, deliver an economic impact of $250-million annually.
I’ve written this before and I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but on its face the city should be seriously exploring the NFR data center project which won’t cost taxpayers any money to build and would jumpstart a technology revolution in the city, according to many in the business and people familiar with the Toronto-based developer’s work in other cities.
Why not Niagara Falls, they ask? And ask they should. The mayor’s mostly secret events center project will cost millions in taxpayer dollars somewhere in the pipeline while Urbacon’s digital data center in partnership with NFR would cost taxpayers nothing and could yield a big return.
And why doesn’t the mayor want to let the cat out of the bag, urging HUD to keep everything secret because it might hurt his land grab? Even a neutral observer must give pause given what we know about the competing development projects and wonder why a full-scale review of both projects shouldn’t be priority number one for cash-starved Niagara Falls?
It looks like none of that will happen before the mayoral debate next Wednesday at the Niagara Street School, and GOP candidate Carl Cain is sure to raise the issue publicly, and he should. My advice to Cain is to urge the mayor to come clean on Centennial Park funding and ask why the city favors such a plan when so much seems in reach with NFR’s data center hub, perhaps a once- in-a-generation opportunity that should not be lost like so many other opportunities that have gone to the Niagara Falls graveyard, a kind of development boot hill for the Cataract City.
The public should have a chance to weigh in on the two projects, and they will have a chance Wednesday night, hopefully.