By Ken Cosentino
Last week, millionaire investor Kevin O’Leary made some eye-opening remarks during an interview with “CNN This Morning.” O’Leary, who is famous for his tenure on the hit ABC series “Shark Tank,” did not mince words when it came to New York State killing jobs; and more specifically, the city of Niagara Falls.
After he called New York State “uninvestable,” the hosts of the CNN talk show asked O’Leary to elaborate. This was his response: “I had a project in upstate New York behind the grid in Niagara Falls for electricity — a global data center we were building.
Eventually, it got so bad with the politicians in the local region and the state policy, we moved it to Norway… and all the jobs. Norway has it now. Thousands of jobs coming out of that! That’s New York. Uninvestable.”
O’Leary added “Sorry, don’t shoot the messenger. Just telling you the way it is.”
As a lifelong resident of Niagara Falls, my ears perk up any time I hear a celebrity or public figure mention our hometown. I’m also a fan of the show “Shark Tank,” and O’Leary, self-dubbed “Mr. Wonderful,” is the main reason I tune in. For those who are unfamiliar with the show: “Shark Tank” allows entrepreneurs a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pitch their business ideas in front of wealthy investors. The investors, including billionaire Mark Cuban and Kevin O’Leary, will either invest or pass on the proposed opportunity. Ergo; Kevin O’Leary is famous for investing in start-ups and launching multi-million dollar enterprises. He takes ideas and turns them into highly lucrative businesses, creating thousands of jobs with the stroke of a pen.
What sense does it make to stop a guy like that from investing in the city of Niagara Falls? What sense does it make to scare away thousands of jobs? This is where the rubber meets the road. Let’s break down O’Leary’s statements: First, he said that New York State is “uninvestable.” As a homeowner and small business owner in the state of New York, I agree with O’Leary. I’m here because my family is here, and my community means the world to me. Niagarians do not know how to give up. We pay exorbitantly high taxes, we’re slammed with unnecessary tolls, and we are treated like indentured servants. If we complain, we are gaslit by politicians who send us “thoughts and prayers” or give us a condescending line of crap.
O’Leary then shocked his interviewers, saying “I had a project in upstate New York behind the grid in Niagara Falls for electricity – a global data center we were building.” I have personally watched all 310 episodes of “Shark Tank,” and in my humble opinion Mr. Wonderful is a genius. He’s highly educated and sophisticated. What I like most about him is that he’s brutally honest. Unfortunately, as educated as Mr. Wonderful is, he completely underestimated the level of political corruption and crookedness in the city of Niagara Falls, NY. If only Mr. Wonderful had had the opportunity to hear from the residents of our community, instead of our elected officials. We could have told him exactly what he needed to know. Alas, our representatives have once again appointed themselves gatekeepers for private interests. These private interests (whomever they may be), have much more power over our city’s administration than the public – despite the fact that our politicians are public servants.
Had the public been given the opportunity, O’Leary may have gained insight into NYPA, the New York State Power Authority; a “public benefit corporation” which does whatever it pleases, hardly benefiting the public at all. According to some reports, NYPA nets an estimated $10 million per day, and they recently enjoyed a $1.1 billion upgrade. Due to a severe lack of leadership, the city of Niagara Falls was all but omitted during the Niagara Power Project’s recent relicensing; leaving us dependent on tourist dollars (which New York State effectively siphons from Niagara Falls State Park). So, no wonder we can’t ever get ahead. No wonder there are so few jobs here offering livable wages. When Mr. Wonderful mentioned a project “in Niagara Falls for electricity,” any one of us could have told him that his endeavor would have resulted in frustration and eventual abandonment.
The rest of Mr. Wonderful’s statement is where we really need to shift our focus, because he says that he was building “a global data center” in the city of Niagara Falls. Hold on a second, pump the brakes! Isn’t there another global data center that’s fully-funded and ready to break ground in the city of Niagara Falls? Perhaps nobody can relate to Mr. Wonderful’s dreadful experience better than Niagara Falls Redevelopment (NFR). Why is our city prejudiced against progress? And what happened to O’Leary’s fully-funded data center? Says O’Leary, “Eventually it got so bad with the politicians in the local region and the state policy, we moved it to Norway… and all the jobs. Norway has it now. Thousands of jobs coming out of that!”
Wow. Let’s recap: A highly influential, very wealthy celebrity investor attempted to build a fully-funded data center in the city of Niagara Falls, creating thousands of jobs; and he says he was met with opposition from our local politicians. O’Leary’s experience is identical to NFR’s current battle with Mayor Robert Restaino, who is attempting to torpedo NFR’s Niagara Digital Campus in order to make way for his own ill-conceived Centennial Park project and event center. It’s déjà vu all over again!
Now, I’m not a conspiracy theorist (I just play one on TV), but when a big fish like O’Leary, who is reportedly worth over $400 million, withdraws a major investment from our community due to alleged mistreatment by our local politicians, it is seriously time for us to re-evaluate the motives of our elected representatives. Our mayor and city council have some major explaining to do.
Imagine you take your entire family to a restaurant and you plan on spending money on dinner, drinks and dessert. Wouldn’t you expect the staff to show you professional courtesy? Why aren’t we holding our city to higher professional standards than we do a restaurant, or any other business for that matter? We’ve all been to those eateries where the wait staff was awful, the food was terrible and management just didn’t seem to care. Do we really want a whale (or shark) like Mr. Wonderful to leave the city of Niagara Falls with a bad taste in his mouth? He just trashed our local politicians on national television, and you know what? They deserved it.
As an entertainment professional, I can say for sure that O’Leary’s dealings with our local politicians must have left him tremendously aggravated. Otherwise, he would not have mentioned Niagara Falls by name. As a taxpayer, this is extremely disappointing and alarming. In fact, it’s an outrage to learn of what “could have been.” Let’s not let it happen again.
Our city is effectively a business, and our mayor, the CEO. When our management is dropping the ball left and right, scaring away major investment opportunities and thousands of jobs – it’s definitely time for a change. Luckily, this is an election year; and as Mr. Wonderful would say, we can “stop the madness!”
NFR is backed by billionaires who are striving to spend their money here in our community, and create hundreds of jobs in the process. In fact, they would have broken ground already if not for Mayor Restaino’s egomaniacal attempt to stonewall their efforts. A lot has already been said about why our mayor has decided to sue for eminent domain over NFR property, despite the fact that the city already owns a more suitable parcel on Third and Niagara streets. What I don’t understand is this: Mayor Restaino is currently campaigning for re-election. Instead of promoting a platform to end our city’s violent crime, or offering to create jobs, or proposing literally any achievable idea that will help our community, the mayor is determined to spend what could be his last year in office waging a war against yet another major investor. Why?
Mayor Restaino is supposed to act on behalf of the people of Niagara Falls. I can’t say it enough: He is a PUBLIC SERVANT. The majority of our community is suffering. Our city’s poverty is appalling, and violent crime is worse than ever. Young people are being gunned down in our streets and our mayor is silent. Drugs are rampant, and our mayor is silent. Businesses are going under, causing people to leave due to lack of work, and our mayor is silent. NFR wants to build a data center and suddenly our mayor’s eyes pop open and he springs to life! Stop the madness! It’s déjà vu!
Look at the data and see for yourself. This report was issued on January 31st, 2023 by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. Take a look at the statistics concerning violent crimes and murder victims in the city of Niagara Falls, NY:
You’ll notice there is a drastic spike in individuals killed by gun violence in 2020, and every year since Restaino has been in office. 10 people were murdered in the city of Niagara Falls during Restaino’s first year as mayor. One year prior, there was only one gun related death; the year before that there were two. In 2021, another 10 people were murdered. Last year, 8 people were shot and killed. Compared to previous years, the number of individuals killed by gun violence has skyrocketed. The number of those wounded has also spiked significantly. In total, 142 people have been shot and wounded, and another 28 were murdered during Restaino’s first three years as mayor. This is not a good thing. This year we have already had several murders, and we’re not even out of the first quarter. This is unacceptable. What is Mayor Restaino doing to combat this horrific spike in gun violence? Is he pressing these issues as a part of his campaign? No. He’s completely focused on his legacy project and event center.
Police officers respond to crimes but they rarely prevent them, that’s just the nature of their job. People call 911 after a crime has already been committed. Thus, more police officers does not result in less crime. Crime is caused by the “Broken Window Theory,” meaning that the blight in Niagara Falls welcomes criminals. It’s easy to conduct illegal activity in an area where the streetlights are broken and the infrastructure is crumbling. Yet, for some reason, Mayor Restaino wants to redirect money set aside for infrastructure and use it to fund his legacy project. An enormous spike in violent crime does not entice investors, but that doesn’t seem to register with Robert Restaino.
Indeed, blight breeds crime. Mayor Restaino defines the neatly manicured lawns and healthy trees on NFR-owned Parcel 0 as “blight.” Not the run down houses or crack dens strewn about town. Mayor Restaino ignores our city’s actual blight and violent crime, which invites more criminals, and turns away major investors and business partners. We need better representation; someone who will not scare off thousands of jobs and locally circulated capital. We need someone who listens to the people, and takes into account our thoughts and wellness (something Mayor Restaino does NOT do). We need someone, perhaps like Glenn Choolokian or Demetreus Nix.
To borrow from Mr. Wonderful’s repertoire of catch phrases: Mayor Restaino’s plans for an event center on NFR property are a “big nothingburger,” and if we allow our mayor to continue with his lunacy, we are ALL “going to zero.”