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“Smokin'” Land Deal Pending for Downtown Niagara Falls?

A sweeping and transformational real estate transaction is possibly in the works as the Cuomo administration, through its Empire State Development agency, is poised to purchase numerous downtown Niagara Falls parcels from local developer and Native American entrepreneur “Smokin'” Joe Anderson, the Reporter has learned, despite all parties concerned refusing to comment directly on the matter.

During the Buffalo installment of his “State of the state” speech on Jan. 9, 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he had decided to purchase “distressed lands adjacent to Niagara Falls State Park” for the purpose of subsequent redevelopment as part of his new “Strategic Land Acquisition Program,” the idea being to spur economic growth locally and revitalize downtown Niagara Falls.

The targeted area essentially borders state parkland as it stretches along the south Robert Moses Parkway and past Niagara Falls State Park, including buildings and vacant lots located on Rainbow Boulevard, Buffalo Avenue and Main Street, as well as Second and Third streets, comprising the former Native American Center for the Living Arts (aka “The Turtle”), the former Niagara Club and the One Niagara Building, among other properties.

Joe Anderson, who made his first of many millions selling non-taxed cigarettes and gasoline from the Tuscarora Indian reservation at Sanborn, has extensive property holdings in what the governor is correctly referring to as “distressed lands.” Of course, the reason they’re “distressed” is that the eight million tourists who come here every year, for the most part don’t venture outside of Albany’s adjacent Niagara Falls State Park, but that’s another story.

According to the Niagara Falls city assessor’s office, Anderson’s properties include the 1st Street addresses 240 (Quality Hotel and Suites), 333 (Smokin’ Joes Native Center, formerly Teletech), 411, 427, 432 and 434, 2nd Street addresses 460, 528, 535, 539, 541, 549, 555, 559, 563, 569 and 579, and 3rd Street addresses 441, 466, 500, 512, 518, 554, 558, 578 and 582.

In addition, he owns Main Street properties at 451, 492 and 503, as well as 102 and 130 Niagara Street and 3193 Buffalo Avenue.

Mr. Anderson controls his estimable downtown real estate empire through a plethora of limited liability companies (LLC’s) including Fall Street Properties LLC, Thunderfalls LLC, Main Street Niagara Falls LLC, Main Street Hospitality Holdings LLC, Waterslide Snow Park LLC and 462 Third Street LLC. All are listed as being headquartered either at 2293 Saunders Settlement Road or 4900 Indian Hill Road, the former the site of his huge reservation-based Trading Post and the latter the other of his two gas stations and retail stores.

In fact, according to a state website, no fewer than twenty-five Anderson LLC’s are based at his sprawling 2293 Saunders Settlement Road tax-free shopping mecca.

“I do not know much about what happened or how this went down. I do support any efforts or plans to develop these properties, as they are some of the most important properties we have downtown and could lead to economic growth in this city,” Niagara County legislator Jay Zona told the Reporter, as close a confirmation that something big was in the offing as anything else we could obtain from the numerous sources we reached out to.

“I haven’t heard any specific plans as of yet,” he continued, “Like most, I’m not a fan of the state purchasing so much land, as I’d prefer reputable developers with resources, and actual plans to build, be the ones to purchase these kind of properties, but sometimes that isn’t feasible.

“As long as the state uses this opportunity to get these parcels RFP’d expeditiously, and follows the (Niagara Falls) comprehensive plan in developing them, good could come of this. That would be a game changer for Niagara Falls.

“My concern, of course, is that none of the properties come off the tax rolls as new state land, or that we enter into any more questionable deals like the WonderFalls proposal. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, and I’ll remain optimistic.”

Similarly, City Councilman Ken Tompkins expressed guarded enthusiasm regarding possible ramifications of the state’s takeover of downtown properties.

“I do know a lot are underutilized, and I welcome more development in our city, but I don’t want to see it negatively affecting our tax rolls in any way… I hope the governor’s plan is done in a timely manner, and without hurting the city or trying to lock it into huge tax breaks,” he said.

When asked directly what he thought of any pending deal between Joe Anderson and the state, Councilman Andrew Tuoma told the Reporter that he hadn’t been briefed, however, he was aware of new activity regarding the appraisal of “multiple buildings,” adding noncommittally that the city was “looking at all options.”

We contacted Director of Communications Pamm Lent and Laura Magee, Public Affairs Specialist for Empire State Development (ESD), but received no response by press time. Likewise, an attempt to interview Joe Anderson for this article was rebuffed by an unnamed individual at his office who told us, “There’s been a lot of talk, a lot of rumors, but I can’t talk about anything like that.”

“To my knowledge the city isn’t involved in any such deal but I will pass along (to Mayor Dyster),” City Administrator Nick Melson responded in an online message.

Mr. Melson’s contention that the city would not know of, or facilitate, any such deal flies in the face of what former ESD Regional President Sam Hoyt told the Niagara Gazette several years ago regarding another downtown Joe Anderson initiative, a combination retail outlet, cigar shop and Off Track Betting parlor opposite NCCC’s Culinary Institute on Old Falls Street.

“(Hoyt) said because the proposal involves a transfer of state land the process will have to involve at least one public hearing. He said the state will also seek input from the city council and Mayor Paul Dyster before making any final determination,” the Gazette reported.

Why it’s necessary, or even advisable, for state government to act as a middle man, purchasing downtown Niagara Falls properties outright, to then turn right around and sell them to someone else, is anyone’s guess. If the development potential for these various parcels was clear, wouldn’t it stand to reason that private sector entities are smart enough to figure that out on their own?

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