Spend First, Study Later
At a “Special Meeting” on Wednesday, May 17, at 5:00 p.m., Niagara Falls Mayor Robert M. Restaino will seek Council approval to spend $140,000 for a feasibility study for Centennial Park, a planned 7000-seat events center and a small adjacent park.
According to the mayor, the cost of the feasibility study will be reimbursed to the city by the National Grid Strategic Economic Development Program, and Empire State Development through its subsidiary USA Niagara.
Normally feasibility studies come first
While the City’s 2009 Comprehensive Plan required Mayor Restaino to conduct a feasibility study before commencing plans for development in the East Falls Redevelopment Area, Mayor Restaino chose a site without one.
More than a year ago, Mayor Restaino began an eminent domain proceeding against Niagara Falls Redevelopment [NFR], seeking to extract ten acres from the company’s 140-acre property in the East Falls area for the site for Centennial Park.
Red ball shows the location of Mayor Restaino’s preferred locale for Centennial Park
The land the mayor wants to take from NFR
Eminent domain is a power granted to the government allowing it to seize private property, even against the owner’s wishes, provided it is for “public purposes” and “just compensation” for the property owner.
High Tech Data Center
NFR made other plans for the land on which the mayor plans to build Centennial Park. In 2021, the company began preconstruction work on a $1.5 billion, 135-megawatt, 600,000 square feet advanced technology and data center, expected to create 550 data and IT positions, enhance broadband access for residents, and generate tax revenues for the region.
Through a partnership with Urbacon, a Toronto-based developer and operator of state-of-the-art data centers, NFR would privately fund the project. Urbacon has developed similar projects in Montreal, Toronto, Richmond Hill, and Ontario,
When NFR declined to donate the land, Restaino shut the project down, at least temporarily, and accused the company of creating plans for a fictitious data center to increase the land value after NFR learned about his plans.
The feasibility study may determine the mayor’s veracity by determining whether NFR shared plans for the data center with the mayor and city planning officials three months before Restaino announced his plan to take its land.
While Mayor Restaino admitted he has yet to identify the $150 million in funding needed to develop the project, experts have said Centennial Park could cost double his estimated cost.
That does not include the costs associated with land acquisition, estimated at another $25 million, and about $5 million in legal expenses.
The feasibility study may help Restaino determine if he can finance the project.
What’s the Plan?
The study may help Restaino pinpoint what Centennial Park will be if he gets funding.
The mayor speaks of numerous features he plans to develop in the park. The problem is, how do they all fit?
With only a few acres remaining on the 10-acre site after the events center and parking ramp are built, it is hard to imagine that all the amenities the mayor has said are part of Centennial Park will fit there.
Plans have changed in recent months, with land requirements shifting and amenities for the tiny park added or dropped.
Restaino described Centennial Park as a “multifaceted year-round ‘Event Campus” with “a multitude of events, including… sporting events, concerts, indoor/outdoor gatherings, and youth-centered activities.”
Mayor Restaino’s plans sometimes include an indoor arena and outdoor amphitheater, a water feature/ice skating rink, and a multilevel surface parking ramp, with a rope climbing attraction up its wall to a rooftop beer garden.
The Mayor has created these images to show how visitors could rope climb up the walls of the parking ramp to find a beer garden on the roof.
The feasibility study might determine if Restaino, who chose the land without a site selection study, made a suitable choice for Parcel 0, even if it cost taxpayers millions to take it from a landowner.
Restaino has yet to consider alternative sites for his plan.
A report from the Niagara Global Tourism Institute, a group retained to formulate a plan for downtown Niagara Falls, said a site selection study was imperative before choosing a location for an events center.
The NFR site is far from the City’s hotels, bars and restaurants, but right across the street from the Seneca Nation’s casino and tax-free hotel and restaurants.
The feasibility study may end suspicions about the mayor’s choice of a site that favors the tax-free Seneca Nation over Niagara Falls businesses.
Some believe his reelection campaign drives the lawsuit. The feasibility study may determine if the mayor’s strategy of suing to force the sale of land is a good use of taxpayer money.
Pat Whalen, former director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute, criticized the lack of a feasibility study before the mayor shut down NFR’s plans.
Halting a Real Project
The study could examine the loss of jobs and taxes from halting NFR’s plans.
The study may also determine if the mayor should have conducted a feasibility study before suing an owner with a viable development plan.
The study could shine light on whether Restaino suing NFR without a feasibility study proves the City did not establish a legitimate public purpose for the proposed taking of NFR’s property, which may lead to the court dismissing the lawsuit.
In November, the mayor revealed he planned to borrow from the next 20 years of federal community development funds, which are almost exclusively earmarked to fix roads and tear down blight, to cover the $10 million down payment for NFR’s land.
When public resistance ran high, he said he might float a bond.
The study may determine how the mayor can fund the down payment for the land and what an events center will cost taxpayers annually.
Annual Costs Unknown
An arena development feasibility study conducted by Convention, Sports & Leisure in 2017 estimated that the annual net loss for a 4,000 – 6,000-seat events center, with an anchor tenant such as a sports team, would be up to $500,000 if an anchor tenant existed.
Because the project is unfunded, Mayor Restaino, of course, cannot name an anchor tenant.
The study might help evaluate the possibility of finding an anchor tenant and how much the events center will lose annually. Reports have shown even with an anchor tenant, it will not run at a profit.
Local business leader James Szwedo and others in the city advocate that city-owned land on Niagara Street and Third Street is a better location for the events center.
It is next to an existing municipal parking garage and close to restaurants, bars, and other commercial businesses along Third Street.
The feasibility study might examine whether the city-owned property, which will not cost taxpayers to purchase, would be a better location.
What Will the Results Be?
Of course, the results depend significantly on who does the study.
An independent consultant is unlikely to do the feasibility study. Instead, the mayor will likely choose from a professional who contributed to his election campaign.
This practice of consultants, architects, engineers, and lawyers who contribute to elected officials, such as mayors, hoping the official will favor them with work, occurs in many municipalities.
Unlike construction contractors, whose selection is based on a bidding process where the low bidder gets the work, a mayor can choose whoever they think is best for “professional services.” The result is that the choice somehow always goes to campaign contributors.
How heavily the mayor will influence the conclusions of the feasibility study may be known when it is complete, but readers can rest assured that the results will be exactly what the mayor wants them to be.
The study will likely either support locating Centennial Park at the costly NFR site or provide the mayor with a face-saving way out of his unpopular, half-baked pie-in-the-sky land grab plan by concluding NFR is to blame for not donating the land.
The consultant’s conclusions will be up to the mayor. The feasibility study is just a red herring to distract from the silliness, cupidity, brazen arrogance and dogged willful reckless blindness of a mayor who rides the council majority as if they were his sled dogs.
Either way, it does not take a consultant to conclude that a feasibility study should have been conducted more than a year ago, before the mayor plunged the city into millions in legal expenses to take land it did not need for a project that probably will not be developed.