Mayor Robert Restaino’s proposed Centennial Park project sparks controversy
By Ken Cosentino
I must preface this by stating my opinion regarding the Seneca Nation of Indians (SNI).
I have a strong friendship with the Mothers of the Seneca Nation, a group recognized by the SNI constitution of 1848.
Through this alliance, I learned that the relationship between the Seneca People and the SNI government is similar to that between residents of the City of Niagara Falls, NY, and our local government.
They/we are largely ignored, deceived, and disregarded during most actions taken by elected officials. That said, any reference in this article to SNI is not a reference to the Seneca people, with whom we are more alike than different.
Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino has entered his final year as mayor. If he loses his re-election bid, he should consider applying for employment with SNI.
Mayor Restaino has made it clear that the motives fueling the Centennial Park legacy project are directly tied to his ego and desire to please the SNI government.
Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino insists on taking NFR’s land, located immediately west of the Seneca Nation. Most of the city’s businesses that would benefit from the spinoff of an events center are east of Seneca land.
Since the Iroquois Confederacy opted out of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, enrolled Senecas could not vote in foreign elections; to do so would threaten their sovereignty. Ergo, Mayor Restaino is pandering to non-voting SNI business interests, while ignoring the cries of his taxpaying constituents.
I’m all for strengthening our relationship with our sovereign neighbors. I even co-founded the Niagara Falls Indigenous People’s Weekend, now an official annual holiday in our community. However, these maneuvers don’t require pandering to the SNI government to the detriment of the people of Niagara Falls.
In February of 2022, SNI signed a contract with the powerful Albany lobbying firm Bolton-St. Johns (BSJ), authorizing BSJ to lobby the negotiation of a new 2023 gaming compact with New York State.
Just one month later (March of 2022), Mayor Robert Restaino followed suit, authorizing BSJ to lobby New York State regarding the Centennial Park project. Restaino’s hiring of BSJ was done almost in tandem with SNI, and his authorization was granted unilaterally without a vote from the city council.
BSJ was formerly the longtime lobbyist of Delaware North, the corporation which holds the concessions contract at Niagara Falls State Park. Delaware North is also SNI’s direct competitor in the gaming industry. Due to this fact, SNI’s contract with BSJ was terminated once the Mothers of the Seneca Nation exposed this information. Consequently, this decision resulted in the forced resignation of SNI’s head legal counsel Michele Mitchell. The deal between SNI and BSJ was perceived as a huge mistake.
The Native-owned news outlet Last Real Indians and the New York Post. cited questionable conflicts of interest regarding the lobbyist BSJ.
We must consider these conflicts of interest while striving to understand if Mayor Restaino has ulterior motives regarding his Centennial Park proposal.
Mayor Restaino wants to sue Niagara Falls Redevelopment (NFR) for eminent domain over 10 acres* of land bordering the Seneca Niagara Casino, dubbed “Parcel 0.”
The Mayor dreams of building Centennial Park and a $150 million “event center” on this parcel. Restaino has suggested the City of Niagara Falls apply for a federal loan to cover the acquisition cost. Legally, the City can borrow up to $9.9 million. If approved, the City (meaning all of us taxpayers) would have to repay this debt with an interest rate of 7.5%. Are you ready for your taxes to go up?
The size mentioned above of the parcel is a topic worth discussing. The Mayor and his legal team have changed their demand during the legal proceedings. Sometimes they’ve stated Parcel 0 is 9.9 acres, Sometimes it’s 10 or 12 acres, and then they’ve reverted to 9.
If the city administration can’t even get their facts straight about the size of the parcel, how can we trust they’ll adequately manage a $150 million project?
Mayor Restaino suggests redirecting Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding to cover an annual portion of this debt, maxing out at an estimated $957,044 annually for 20 years. CDBG is a federal HUD program funded by tax dollars. The Mayor also plans to tap the city budget to cover litigation costs.
Let that sink in for a moment: Our Mayor wants to take tax dollars set aside for funding community programs and rebuilding infrastructure, and redirect this money towards legal fees in a court case that the City will likely lose. I feel like we’ve been down this road before.
While budgeting and finances are not our mayor’s strong suit, he ought to know a thing or two about precedence as a former judge.
NFR, backed by legendary attorney John Bartolomei, has already won an eminent domain case against the City and state, winning an initial settlement in 2006 and a final settlement in 2014.
Our odds of winning would be better if the city council authorized Mayor Restaino to take $150 million of our tax money and bet it all on black at the casino.
Even if the City of Niagara Falls somehow won an eminent domain case against NFR, there is no secured investment to cover the Mayor’s grandiose $150 million fantasy. The Mayor has even admitted that if the “event center” fails to obtain funding, he could turn Parcel 0 to another private developer – possibly SNI.
Therein lies the rub.
NFR wants to build a $1.5 billion data center with its own money on Parcel 0.
Not only is Mayor Restaino completely ignoring the fact that NFR has already secured funding for and is ready to break ground on Parcel 0 to build a high-tech digital campus, but the Mayor also ignores the elephant in the room: The City owns property bordering Third and Niagara Streets, on the other side of the casino.
I agree with local businessman/activist James Szwedo, who pointed out that the City-owned Third Street property is the most viable location for the events center.
The mayor’s proposal includes the necessity for the construction of a parking ramp, at an estimated cost between $25 – $35 million.
Building a 500-car parking ramp isn’t sensible when the City already owns the underutilized 2500-car Rainbow Mall ramp. It doesn’t take an economist to see that utilizing property already owned by the City is much better than waging a high-cost legal crusade against NFR and forcing taxpayers to finance litigation and acquisition costs.
Editor’s Notes to the photo above: 1 The location where James Szwedo proposes building the events center on city-owned land = no land acquisition cost. 2 Rainbow Parking Ramp – owned by city. With 2500 spaces and underutilized. Perfect size for concerts and events. 3 The tax-free Seneca Nation, which divides downtown Niagara Falls. Most downtown businesses are east of the Seneca Nation, where Szwedo wants the events center built. 4 Parcel O, owned by NFR, is west of the Seneca nation. If an events center is built there, as the mayor insists, the beneficiary will be tax free Seneca Nation and not taxpaying businesses whose taxes must pay for the events center. 5 Part of the local business section of downtown Niagara Falls.
Past administrations have spent millions of dollars and well over a decade focusing on revitalizing Third Street. Restaino’s campaign slogan is “Let’s finish the job we started!”
Our Mayor should take his own advice and stop being a hypocrite. By ignoring the opportunity to build the event center on Third and Niagara, Mayor Restaino is thumbing his nose at former administrations and all business owners who have invested their time and money into that district.
Why does the Mayor want to build Centennial Park, where it will mainly benefit the Seneca business interest?
Editor’s Note: above- Seneca parking lot for their tax free businesses [B] and Parcel 0, owned by NFR. The mayor’s plan is to take Parcel 0 and build the events center across the street from the Seneca parking lot.The mayor’s proposal would be absurd if it weren’t so reckless. If Robert Restaino was going to pay for this, I’d say, “Go right ahead – sue NFR; build the park and events center on Parcel 0 and adorn it with a golden statue in his own image.”
But he’s not paying for this with his own money. He wants to pay for it with our money. It’s a huge gamble, and personally, I don’t prefer to gamble with my hard-earned dollars. I’d rather see my tax dollars go toward fixing roads and funding programs for underprivileged kids.
One of the mayor’s sketches for his shifting plans for Centennial Park as he envisions it on Parcel 0.
Our Mayor blames the pandemic for the fact that he has underperformed during his first three years in office. This forces us to judge his suitability and leadership skills based on his actions, instead of his lack of accomplishments.
Mayor Restaino has used “special” council meetings to bar the public from participating in city council meetings. His lack of transparency and understanding of finances speaks volumes.
Residents criticize Restaino’s plan to sue NFR for Parcel 0
More recently, our Mayor attempted to bury the results of a public survey distributed by Community Development Director Clifford Scott, Jr., who oversees the management of the CDBG funds.
Mayor Restaino chastised Scott for distributing the survey during a public hearing, during which nearly every speaker from our community spoke in opposition to the Centennial Park proposal and the idea of a federal loan.
Scott told those who took the survey that city officials would consider the results during the process of amending the Community Development’s spending plan.
Mayor Restaino told the Niagara Gazette, “We never authorized any survey.”
The Mayor has an issue accepting criticism about his project, and not just from the taxpaying public.
Restaino chose to ignore advice from at least one expert: Patrick Whalen, the former director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute (NGTI), who stated, “I believe [the Third Street site] would work for everyone in Niagara Falls: adding critical mass, and near Third Street hospitality businesses, parking, hotels, and other commercial locations.”
Drawing of Centennial Park events center.
Whalen should know. The City utilized NGTI’s feasibility study to analyze and determine a location for the proposed event center.
Whalen said they never got the chance to select a site. Mayor Restaino selected the NFR site with “no analysis, no study, not much thought.”
Whalen also warned the public that Mayor Restaino’s proposed $150 million budget for his Centennial Park, a 7000-seat events center, a parking ramp, and an ever-changing list of amusements is underestimated.
The true cost will likely be $300 million.
One of the Mayor’s sketches for Centennial Park. Plans include rope climbing up the walls of the parking ramp.
The City may end up not spending any money to build Centennial Park. The mayor admitted he has no funding for the development if he succeeds in taking the land.
Mayor Restaino accused of ignoring input
Robert Restaino vowed to serve the public when he took office. He is now choosing to break his oath by serving himself and possibly private interests, while ignoring public input. He ignored the experts.
He has avoided the facts. Ultimately, his ignorance will lead to massive debt – and that debt will fall on the shoulders of local taxpayers for generations to come.