by Mike Hudson
Although the Dyster administration has had more than five years to come to an agreement with Amtrak and the Underground Railroad Interpretive Center for use of the new, $44 million train station on Whirlpool Street, market the facility to other prospective tenants and come up with a budget to run the place, it has done none of those things.
Not a single shred of paper exists saying that anyone at all will take up residence in the new facility, which is set to open in less than 60 days. It is entirely possible that the train station will open without a train.
Just last week, the administration released an open call for tenants, the first step in a public bidding process that is likely to take months.
Thomas DeSantis, the city’s senior planner, said that Amtrak and its tenant, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, will be responsible for pro-rated percentage of the $345,000 annual operating cost – roughly 60 percent – which would obligate the organizations to pay about $207,000 per year.
He said this despite the fact that no agreement exists between the city, Amtrak, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Underground Railroad Interpretive Center or anyone else to use the facility in any way.
If all the tenant spaces are filled on the projected terms, DeSantis said, the city would pay $86,250 per year to operate the place, a decrease from the $100,000 number he threw out in February.
According to documents obtained by the Niagara Falls Reporter under the Freedom of Information Law, the city’s North Main Street courthouse costs $500,000 a year to heat, light and maintain. To say that DeSantis’s projections are rosy would be insulting to roses.
“We could have had a budget a year ago, or two years ago, but they would have just been projections – the closer we get to the opening, the more accurate the projections become,” he hemmed and hawed. “The object going forward will be to normalize a monthly annual cost after the first year. Then you would say, based on actual costs that were either higher or lower than the projections, we can adjust rents or look to … add to revenues in some way.”
The city will have to provide for maintenance and security needs, heat, air conditioning and lighting, snow plowing in the parking lot and a myriad of other expenses. DeSantis’s $86,250 figure would not even cover the salary and benefit packages of two janitors.
Two full time $25,000 maintenance persons with $21,000 health insurance, $4,000 pension and other benefits comes to $100,000.
About 10 percent of the station’s footprint, or $34,500 in costs, is the space now being advertised by the city. No bids have been reported.
Among the planned tenants at the site is the Underground Railroad Interpretive Center, occupying five-percent of the available space, and projected to pay $17,250 annually. But no contract has been signed.
While DeSantis says costs at the new station will be shared with Amtrak, there is no reason to believe the money-losing passenger train service will need any more space than the 800 square feet it now occupies at its’ current Lockport Road station.
Councilman Charles Walker said what everyone else is thinking.
“I am still somewhat concerned that there’s not actual signed documents,” Walker said.
Other than the proposed museum, the 22,000 square foot train station facility only has one other prospective tenant – Amtrak itself. Though DeSantis and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster made much of the ability to attract other tenants like offices and restaurants to the facility, none has come forward.
This is perhaps due in part to the fact that very few people ride the train into and out of Niagara Falls. On an average day, just 64 passengers use the service. A small corner of the massive building will be more than adequate for all of the railroad’s needs.
City Controller Maria C. Brown said officials are in the process of setting up a separate stand-alone fund for the train station, rather than mixing operational costs into the general budget.
Maintenance, utilities, security and other expenses will be the responsibility of the Niagara Falls taxpayers for generations to come or until whenever money-losing passenger train service finally comes to an end, whichever comes first.
Back in 2010, Dyster and DeSantis were talking about high speed rail service, an “intermodal transportation center” that would house upscale shops and restaurants, a cutting edge moneymaker that would be the envy of municipalities throughout the state.
Now, in less than 60 days, the city will open a train station that has cost taxpayers $44 million. There are no signed tenants, no operating budget and officials here seem clueless about what the ongoing costs will be for city taxpayers.