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Not another faith based initiative! ReNU Niagara eyes 5th, 6th Streets

Back in Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood’s motto was, “Take from the rich and give to the poor.” Not a bad objective, but one that’s been revised by Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster.

“Take from the working poor and give to the non-working poor,” might well be his motto.

Last week, residents on 5th and 6th Streets between Ferry Avenue and Niagara Street received mysterious fliers inviting them to public meetings staged by a shadowy group calling itself ReNU Niagara. The strangest thing was that, although those blocks on 5thand 6th only account for about 20 homes apiece, the meetings were staged on different days.

It turns out that ReNU Niagara is yet another faith based, not-for-profit initiative, this time sponsored by the Niagara University, a Roman Catholic institution. Mayor Dyster has a long record of supporting religious programs specifically designed to separate taxpayers from their money.

There was Isaiah 61, which received close to $1 million in foundation, corporate, public utility, federal and city taxpayer grants – in connection with an alleged housing rehab scheme. After citations from the city’s Code Enforcement Department, a house that collapsed into its own basement because the people who were working on it didn’t know what they were doing, and zero progress on the refurbishment of a long-shuttered Highland Avenue fire house the city gifted them and paid them to rehabilitate, little has been heard of the organization.

And then there was NOAH, the self described “faith-based, urban and suburban and racially diverse community organizing coalition of over 22 congregations, labor unions and community organizations that collaboratively work for positive social change in Niagara Falls and Niagara County.”

They seem to have taken the money, including a $137,000 federal grant, and run as well.

According to the NOAH president, Rev. JoAnne Scott, “NOAH tapped into the interests and the resources of local unions, the Mayor and Catholic Charities.

“This program will provide essential tools that will help build our people and will revitalize our community,” she added.

That sure didn’t happen!

Who can forget the “Beloved Community,” which sank $80 million into building 215 units of public housing in the city’s North End? Yet another Dyster-supported faith based initiative to pick the taxpayers’ pockets?

In a city where a decent house can be bought for $40,000, the “Beloved Community” spent more than $372,000 a unit on condos, every dime of it coming from the taxpayer.

Thomas Lowe, 30, the director of ReNU Niagara,  is also close friends with Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo and Mayor Dyster, and has been recognized for the leadership role he has been taking in making changes in Niagara Falls.

He received his bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in arts administration from SUNY Fredonia in 2009, before returning to Niagara County to serve in the AmeriCorps VISTA at ReNu Niagara. By 2013, he had worked his way up and taken over as director.

Mr. Lowe also has served on a volunteer basis as the chairman of the Niagara Beautification Commission.

He also played a role in the development of the failed “Live NF” initiative, a program that was started to offer incentives to bring recent college graduates to Niagara Falls. ReNU Niagara also promotes a scheme called “Pints 4 Progress,” which encourages people to meet casually over drinks and food and promote their ideas about projects to benefit Niagara Falls.

Tom Lowe, dressed to impress in one of his nicest t-shirts, represents Niagara University and the city of Niagara Falls at UB’s Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness inaugural “Social Innovation” conference this past April.

“Pints 4 Progress is what ReNu was meant to do and that’s giving a voice to the community,” Mr. Lowe said. “It’s empowering them to get involved and make decisions. We see new people every time. We’ve had 17 events and none of them have turned into a negative criticism of a project. They workshop the idea and try to implement it and make it successful. It’s people who love this city and want to see it improve. It’s genuine positivity and optimism.”

How long has Mr. Lowe’s taxpayer-funded operation been a presence in the Falls?

“We’ve pretty consistently been in operation for 10 years. It was opened in 2006 by HUD (the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development) as a Community Outreach Partnership Center,” he said. “It was federally funded for the first three years. Niagara University internalized the program after the federal funding ended.”

The organization’s accomplishments over the past decade remain obscure, however. When pressed, Mr. Lowe slipped easily into the language of the bureaucrat.

“Our mission, our bottom line, is capacity building,” he said. “We are kind of the front door to the university in the community. We work less with students and faculty and more with organizations and residents. If a resident has a project idea, our door is open.”

Likewise obscure is what the organization wants with the residents of 40 homes on 5th and 6th Streets, between Ferry Avenue and Niagara Street.

Somebody should ask Mayor Dyster. He’d probably know. But he won’t speak to the Niagara Falls Reporter.

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