Turtle Aftermath: Giving “Buffalo Niagara” the Boot

TURTLE RECAP: CENSORING THOSE WITH A DIFFERENCE OF OPINION

Last week’s debacle surrounding the Turtle building should be a major wake up call for the people of Niagara Falls. A Buffalo-based group of Erie County “preservationists” failed miserably in its attempt to landmark the Turtle building which most observers believed would have inevitably led to another eminent domain lawsuit between the City of Niagara Falls and Niagara Falls Redevelopment.

Wisely, the Niagara Falls City Council voted against the landmark designation. Some members of the council recognized a pattern of encroachment which has kept our community in shackles since time immemorial.

The non-Native “preservationists” from Buffalo organized a series of “informational presentations” and rallies prior to the city council meeting. Despite their roles as organizers, they erroneously continue to claim that this was a “Native led movement.”

Any time the question of leadership was brought up in public forum, Native members of the movement would often readily look at and point to Carl Skompinski, Ally Spongr DeGon and Bernice Radle as the organizers of this alleged scheme.

Carl Skompinski speaking at the Niagara Falls City Council meeting last Wednesday.

Carl Skompinski is not someone who is recognized in our community. He created a group called “Friends of the Turtle” which I participated in for over a year. That was until recently, when Mr. Skompinski first censored my ability to participate in discussion in his group before outright banning me over a difference of opinion. 

I was censored for two reasons: The first is that I suggested finding alternative avenues to preserving the Turtle which didn’t involve the landmark designation. Secondly, I asked members of the group if they would be interested in learning more about our efforts to reclaim Native land in Niagara Falls – and potentially join forces in these matters.

Skompinski immediately dismissed potential alternative methods of preservation that did not include the landmark designation. He then scoffed at our land claim efforts, saying something to the effect of “Why stop there? Why don’t we just reclaim all of the US?” This did not favor well with those Indigenous group members who were also actively a part of our ongoing land claim efforts.

Carl Skompinski censored the author of this article for questioning Ally Spongr DeGon’s involvement in organizing group events.

In an effort to quiet me, Skompinski first limited my ability to post comments before outright banning me from the group after I questioned Ally Spongr DeGon’s involvement in organizing the “preservation” effort.

I merely shared a true personal story of my own experience with Spongr DeGon in which she showed a total lack of appreciation for and ignorance towards Native culture. Several members of the group thanked me for speaking the truth. This caused an infantile reaction from Skompinski who blew his top and blocked me from “Friends of the Turtle.” 

Since then, several throngs of members have questioned Skompinski’s unwarranted use of censorship and his unwillingness to allow any open discussion in his echo chamber… which Skompinski himself has hypocritically cried about in the past.

The author standing with city council and members of the Seneca Nation after passing a historic resolution recognizing the ancestral lands of Seneca People in Niagara Falls (2020). Carl Skompinski scoffed at these efforts.

WHO STOOD TO PROFIT FROM THE LANDMARK DESIGNATION?

According to her LinkedIn profile, Ally Spongr DeGon has been a Board of Trustee member of Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN) since January of 2018.

I also find PBN Executive Director Bernice Radle’s involvement in these matters to be troublesome. As a strong supporter of Seth Piccirillo For Mayor, Bernice’s suspected involvement with the procurement of certain properties in the City of Niagara Falls whilst Piccirillo was Director of Development (and acting head of Code Enforcement), has undoubtedly left many unanswered questions about her questionable dealings with city hall. 

According to some sources, a well respected local businessman and property owner named Sean Wilczak filed court documents against the City of Niagara Falls for the alleged “improper foreclosure” on two of Wilczak’s properties. One of those properties, 326 Cedar Avenue, was sold to BuffaLove Development, a company owned by Radle, for $10,000.

In disclosures to the court, Wilczak showed that he owed less than $1,000 in back taxes on 326 Cedar Avenue and that he had informed the city of the delayed payment just weeks prior to the foreclosure. In his court documents, Wilczak alleged that his properties were foreclosed upon without the city properly serving him or giving him proper legal notice.

Says Wilczak, “People need to look at the relationship between Bernice and Seth to realize how unfair this situation has been.”

After losing his election in 2019, Piccirillo went on to become the Director of Economic Development for the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. Radle on the other hand took time away from soliciting crowdfunding money for her exotic honeymoon to worm her way up the political ladder and into her current position.

In January, the Niagara Express reported: “Bernice Radle, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara and a Niagara Falls native who grew up on Cedar Avenue said her organization received more than 1,200 letters in support of preservation. She told the commission her organization for the first time has a Niagara Falls liaison Emily Jarnot who lives in the city.”

Of those 1,200 letters only about 20% came from Niagara Falls residents. As such, Preservation Buffalo Niagara was all smoke and mirrors as it tried to bully its way into City Hall. Also, prior to now, Preservation Buffalo Niagara did not have a Niagara Falls liaison. That’s awfully telling considering the organization has been around since 2008. 

 

“BUFFALO NIAGARA” IS NOT A REGION!

How can there be a “Buffalo Niagara Partnership” if Niagara Falls/Niagara County are not included in every decision that’s made regarding our communities? The truth is that decisions are usually made “for us” by people who think they know what’s best for us. Or rather, what’s best for themselves and their rich benefactors.

The relationship between Niagara Falls and Buffalo is similar to Ireland/Wales/Scotland and Great Britain.

According to the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s official website: “While the BNP was formed in 1993­, the organization can trace its roots back to the 1800s. The following timeline offers a brief history of how the BNP has been working to make Buffalo Niagara a better place in which to do business.”

The BNP website then gives a completely Buffalo-centric timeline dating back to the 1800’s, without a single mention of Niagara Falls or Niagara County.

The author standing with the Mothers of the Seneca Nation and other allies on the island of Celinda Eliza (2020).

In 1993, while the Buffalo Niagara Partnership was being formed, the Seneca Nation of Indians sued New York State; claiming ownership over the islands of the Niagara River. 

This becomes a critical factor to note when one considers the $564 million that Governor (and Buffalo native) Kathy Hochul strong-armed from the Seneca Nation of Indians; of which she committed $418 million to the construction of the new Buffalo Bills stadium. 

Regarding the planning of the new stadium, 50% of the advisors to Bills owner Terry Pegula are on the Board of Directors of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. The other 50% are directly associated with members of the BNP Board of Directors. [Read the full story here]

 

THE TRUE HISTORY OF “BUFFALO NIAGARA” PARTNERSHIPS

Since the Buffalo Niagara Partnership claims to have roots dating back to the 1800’s, let’s take a look at the actual history and operations regarding Buffalo/Niagara “partnerships” in the 19th century.

In 1896, New York State Assemblyman Thomas V. Welch spoke about the true roots of the “partnership” between the City of Niagara Falls and the City of Buffalo. During his speech at the 15th Annual Meeting of the American Street Railway Association, Welch noted the seeds which would eventually grow into organizations such as the Buffalo Niagara Partnership as they stand today.

Speaking on behalf of the City of Niagara Falls, Welch said, “Buffalo is the ‘Queen City’ – so she says. She met us more than ‘half way on the shore.’ She took forcible possession of us. 

Welch goes on to say, “When we read the Buffalo papers we think we must be laboring under a delusion, in thinking that the cataract is just here at the foot of Falls Street. The American Fall is evidently on the Terrace in Buffalo. This would bring the Horseshoe Fall at Ellicott Square, the power house at Music Hall, and the Cave of the Winds, I suppose, in the council chamber in the city hall – that’s where we find it at times, here at Niagara Falls [Laughter]. That would leave us with nothing but the Devil’s Hole to bank on.”

Welch continued, saying “Our friends will readily understand, after having been the handmaid of Buffalo in this fashion, what a relief it is to us, just for a change, to find ourselves, for this occasion, the captive of the American Street Railway Association.”

Today when we read publications such as the Buffalo News, more often than not the editorials slam our community. The message is always “Why can’t Niagara Falls pick itself up by its own bootstraps?” or “How do they fail to capitalize on the hydropower and millions of tourists?”

The truth is that Niagara Falls does generate hundreds of millions of dollars annually, but we aren’t seeing any of that money returned to our community. Corrupt politics have kept us impoverished and history tends to repeat itself.

Two points must be made here: 

The first is that the “Buffalo Niagara Region” was invented by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. Buffalo is a city in Erie County but Niagara itself is a county. So “Buffalo-Niagara” doesn’t exactly make much sense linguistically, geographically or economically. “Erie-Niagara Region” would make a lot more sense, or we can just stick with calling it Western New York.

In truth, Niagara Falls and Niagara County fall under the “Greater Niagara Region” which has been encroached upon by the more recent invention of the “Buffalo Niagara Region,” which isn’t an actual geographical region but a smart marketing ploy and play for political power.

The second point is that the speaker of the aforementioned quote, Thomas V. Welch, also penned the first city charter for the City of Niagara Falls, New York in 1892. Just a few years earlier Welch successfully pulled off a scheme that closely resembles the actions of organizers behind the “Save the Turtle” movement.

In the 1870’s and early 1880’s, Welch drummed up enough local support from people in and around Niagara Falls for a “preservation” movement. This group, which called itself “Free Niagara,” was led by Welch who used naturalist architect Frederick Law Olmsted as his poster boy. The goal was to “preserve” the land surrounding the Falls forever… but the real goal was to gain the rights to draw hydroelectric current from the upper rapids.

After gaining enough local and political support, the “Free Niagara” movement was successful. In the first ever use of eminent domain, New York State passed the “Niagara Reservation Act of 1883” which led to the acquiring of the land around the Falls in 1885. That is how New York State ultimately secured the rights to the hydroelectricity.

This land, which is located a stone’s throw from the Turtle building, became known as the “Niagara Reservation” and it was meant to be a nature preserve. At least, that’s how it was sold to Olmsted and the local supporters of the “Free Niagara” movement. Today nothing even remotely recognizable of Olmsted’s original vision remains within the state park.

A 1990 headline from the Buffalo News – over three decades and tons of construction later, nothing remains of Olmsted’s vision at Niagara Falls State Park. So much for “preservation.”

According to author Ginger Strand in her book “Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power and Lies,” Welch and his co-conspirators (including state employees and officials) immediately invested their money into the Niagara Falls Power Company after securing the land and water rights for the purposes of hydropower.

The nature preserve was never actually realized and today the Niagara Falls State Park claims that it was created in 1885, claiming the title of “America’s Oldest State Park” despite not becoming an actual park until sometime around the 1960’s with the creation of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation being an authority over “Historic Preservation” is ironic considering the absolute neglect shown to the DeVeaux carriage barn; which was left to rot and ultimately collapse despite being right next door to the state park offices. Where was Preservation Buffalo Niagara while local activists were attempting to save the carriage barn? Where were Skompinski, Spongr DeGon and Radle?

 

LANDMARKING THE TURTLE COULD HAVE BEEN CATASTROPHIC

The “Free Niagara” movement certainly shows the blueprint for what could have happened with the “Save the Turtle” movement, had our city council not intervened. The organizers behind “Save the Turtle” promoted a “Native American Cultural Center and Museum” utilizing propaganda to sell their vision to supporters. 

Unfortunately, there were honest people who believed that a landmark designation would result in the Turtle reopening as a cultural center and museum; despite the fact that the organizers had no financial backing to support their phantom vision. Nor did they ever approach the owners of the Turtle with a serious offer to purchase the land or building.

Encroachment in the City of Niagara Falls is a harsh reality bordering on tradition, especially from Buffalo and outside developers who wish to own prime real estate purchased at below-market values. 

The Turtle sits atop the most prime parcel of land in the city; sharing a border with the state park where millions of tourists visit annually. 

One must only venture over to the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s website and take a look at their Board of Directors. Out of 64 directors listed, only two have any connection to Niagara Falls or our community. The rest are all Buffalo-centric.

The Buffalo Niagara Partnership is a one-sided parasitic entity which only benefits the City of Buffalo; doing so on the backs of Niagara Falls taxpayers. Our community should take a serious look at all “Buffalo Niagara” entities and individuals who have their hand in our honeypot and ask for receipts. 

Look at the names and the people involved. We have to ask questions such as “How is this relationship benefitting Niagara Falls?” Entities such as the “Buffalo Niagara International Airport,” “Preservation Buffalo Niagara,” the “Buffalo Niagara Film Office,” and of course the “Buffalo Niagara Partnership” to name a few.

Kudos to our city council for catching this “preservation” scheme and exposing it for what it was: an attempted land grab.

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