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By Frank Parlato Jr.

Back in May of 2009, we let the public know there was a plan to change Jayne Park on Cayuga Island in the city of Niagara Falls.

The news unsettled many of the residents of Cayuga Island.

Dedicated in 1937, Jayne Park has functioned as a neighborhood park in a quiet residential neighborhood. It serves as a gathering place for local walkers, joggers, dog-walkers, fishermen and birdwatchers in this pavementless 22 acres along about a half-mile of shoreline on the Little Niagara River.

City Planner Tom DeSantis had a long-cherished plan to develop this small waterfront park on the northern shore of the island into a regional park that more people would use.

He made a grant application to the New York State Environmental Protection fund initially around 2001. The state finally approved a matching grant in 2008 for $145,000. The city's matching $145,000 contribution would come from Seneca Niagara Casino funds.

Although the grant was approved, nothing was said to the residents, and DeSantis' plan crept forward to convert this quiet, little-known neighborhood park into a regional park, with $290,000 worth of "improvements," including a canoe launch, paved walking trails, picnic shelters, park furniture, portable toilets and a 40-car parking lot, and the removal of what was called "overgrown" vegetation along the shoreline, to make clearer the view of the Little Niagara River.

After learning about it from the Reporter, the reaction by Cayuga Island residents was anything but tepid. A petition drive aimed at putting a stop to the proposed park changes netted more than 370 signatures. Residents directed hundreds of calls and e-mails to the Council asking them to halt the plan.

At first, the reaction of the Dyster administration seemed aimed more at trying to find supporters of the plan than to assess what neighbors wanted. Councilmember Sam Fruscione led a charge -- in response to the protests -- to make sure the administration heard the voices of Cayuga Island residents. Fruscione went so far as to accuse DeSantis and Dyster of moving the plan forward stealthily -- going out of their way to reach out to known supporters -- as if they were trying to build up momentum outside the Island to counteract neighbors' objections.

Fruscione literally admonished DeSantis at a public meeting, saying, "Tom, you've got to meet with the residents of Cayuga Island and not just the people in the surrounding areas."

Finally the mayor and DeSantis met about a hundred of the Cayuga Island residents when they stormed into the LaSalle Public Library and condemned the idea of inviting the world to use their neighborhood park. Here the rights of a neighborhood to what it has enjoyed for decades -- Jayne Park being a neighborhood park -- collided against the concept that the park belongs to all people in Niagara Falls.

Were the DeSantis plan followed, the park could become an intriguing small park -- perhaps even a jewel -- attracting many outsiders to commence outdoor activities there. And while there are no stores on Cayuga Island, increased visitation might help nearby stores on Buffalo Avenue.

But Mayor Dyster, seeking re-election this year, admitted to the Reporter in an interview last week that people living closest to the park should be the dominant voice for what happens there. Cayuga Island is made up of about 350 above-average-priced homes, and its residents vote. Dyster, you might say, has veered from his chief planner's plan. His administration still wants to proceed with something.

Dyster told the Reporter, "State (grant) dollars are going to be harder to get our hands on in the future."

He hopes to preserve the grant with a modified plan acceptable to the residents.

It might be, however, appropriate to remind the reader that this is a matching grant. The city will spend casino money if an altered plan is approved.

Now some say casino money is not taxpayer money, therefore it can be spent liberally and painlessly. This, I think, is a fallacy.

The Seneca, with their tax-free status, their right to use property that was once part of Niagara Falls and, unlike everyone else, use it to open businesses without paying a dime in taxes, is costly to the people. Besides their monopoly on gaming, Seneca operates a tax-free, 604-room hotel and a dozen tax-free restaurants, bars and other retail operations -- all without paying property or sales tax.

In 2010, Seneca added new restaurant and retail offerings, including the Koi Noodle Bar, a Tim Horton's coffee shop, and Swarovski Crystal, a store that sells crystal jewelry, stemware and other items. All of these compete tax-free with other similar restaurants, coffee shops and stores in our overtaxed city.

The only revenue that the city gets for cutting a swath of 50 acres in the heart of downtown -- given by New York state to a foreign nation to compete against us tax-free -- is the casino revenue.

It is in effect tax money.

To illustrate how sweet it is to live tax-free, the Seneca $25 million Hickory Stick Golf Course opened in July and has since been named the sixth-best new course in America by Golf magazine. It's easy to get big when you pay no taxes.

It's like America in the old days, when success rose out of nowhere. But in this case, it is not offered to Americans but to a tribe who are by their own acclamation a sovereign nation.

Regardless, Dyster told the Reporter that even if Jayne Park remains a neighborhood park, he thinks the same money -- $290,000 -- might still be spent.

Which raises another point apropos of the ongoing criticism of the mayor: that he shills for his campaign contributors -- seeking out even unnecessary projects in order to reward them for their contributions -- a mainly Buffalo crowd of designers, architects, consultants and engineers who have poured tens of thousands into his war chest and have in turn gotten hundreds of thousands in work and grants. The question then -- for Jayne Park, at least -- is, who will get the work for the scaled-down plan, and why will it cost so much?

As to the criticism that Dyster shills for his contributors, Dyster says he never personally recommends consultants.

"All the recommendations are made by professional staff (engineering, planning, etc.), and I certainly never tried to influence or overrule their recommendations. When there is a relationship, when somebody is politically tied to me in any way, I recuse myself and make the public aware of the relationship.

"Naturally, every politician solicits campaign donations. Your hope is that the people who donate won't expect special favors from you, but (will donate) to get good government," he said.

Sources at City Hall say that it can't be a coincidence that contributors consistently emerge with work and that Dyster makes calls on behalf of certain consultants.

Dyster, however, said the consultant for Jayne Park, if the project proceeds, will be Peter J. Smith, with offices in the United States and Canada. He says he doesn't know of anyone in that firm having ever contributed to his campaign.

"My job is to listen to what the people want," Dyster said. "I try to get it for them. ... The majority of the people at the meetings don't want (a parking lot and canoe launch), so that's off the table."

As to DeSantis' plan to "improve" the shoreline by clearing out vegetation -- that too seems off the table.

Jayne Park's shoreline -- which to a casual observer might appear to be overgrown weeds -- contains, according to a study by Patricia M. Eckel of the Missouri Botanical Garden, rare species of plant life. It is part of an ancient marsh and is a current flyway for many species of waterfowl.

"Neither I nor Tom DeSantis are hard and fast on what we want to do," Dyster said. "We should be able to use the money on the grant pretty easily (to make it) a passive recreation park.

"We could put some (paved) trails, so there could be handicap access and so you can walk around; maybe put some benches, some trash receptacles, some native plant restoration, something very minimal. Even that will cost more than people think."

In any event, Jayne Park is on the table. The argument that "we have the grant, so let's spend the money" is debatable. But the mayor has committed to listening to the people most affected by the plan. If these are not vigilant, one day they may wake up and find other voices have spoken for them.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Jan. 11, 2011