Turtle Power: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

The Turtle before it was painted white.

I have watched with interest as the “Save the Turtle” drama unfolds. The Turtle has no special spiritual significance to me, nor do I have any memories or recollection from its brief heyday. I was just a kid when the Turtle was foreclosed upon and forced to close its doors. Also, I am not Indigenous, so I do not feel the same connection to the Turtle that many of my friends may feel.

Still, I have been contacted dozens of times over the last few months by Indigenous People from both sides of the border. They have asked for my opinion on how we can save the Turtle. I was also contacted by a member of the Historic Preservation Commission for my opinion. Given that some people would like to know where I stand, I have decided to write this editorial.

To me, the situation at hand resembles the popular Aesop fable “The Tortoise and the Hare.” I see the current plan of seeking a landmark designation as the bullish but clumsy hare, rushing into a potentially disastrous outcome. There is, however, a steadier plan that was well thought out and methodical, which could actually result in preserving the Turtle for the next seven generations and beyond.

First I’d like to tell you exactly why anyone would even be interested in my opinion regarding the “Save the Turtle” movement. I am known locally as an activist, a historian, and a conservationist. Most of my activism has centered around Human Rights, which has brought me to the frontlines as a non-Indigenous ally. Indigenous rights are human rights, and Indigenous People have always been at the front of this movement. Still, I only speak for myself in regards to the Turtle.

My whole life I have had a close relationship with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) and I continue to work with several Native groups on issues involving treaties, human rights and land ownership. I have helped write and pass several city resolutions preserving the Niagara gorge and recognizing the ancestral lands of the Seneca People. I am also a co-founder of the Tuscarora Water Drive and Niagara Falls Indigenous People’s Weekend, which has been an annual holiday in our city since 2021. In 2022, I was adopted by a Comanche/Lakota family.

In 2017 there was an announcement that the owners of the Turtle, Niagara Falls Redevelopment (NFR), were planning to erect a hotel on the site of the Turtle. The company was also seeking a variance to return to the height restrictions as they were when NFR originally purchased the Turtle. This announcement occurred several months after I had just successfully spearheaded a grassroots effort to block construction of a lodge and casino resort on Goat Island. At this time, the Niagara Falls Water Protecters had been in existence for nearly a year, and I was a founding member.

When I first heard about the potential redevelopment of the Turtle, I reached out to Roger Trevino from Niagara Falls Redevelopment. I was expecting to be turned away and so I was surprised when Mr. Trevino readily agreed to meet with me. We had lunch at Panera Bread and I told him in no uncertain terms that we (the Niagara Falls Water Protectors) would do everything it takes to block the demolition of the Turtle. Even if it meant chaining ourselves to the building.

I learned from our discussion that, upon purchasing the Turtle, NFR actually approached the Smithsonian for affiliate status. After spending a considerable amount of time and financial resources, NFR found there was no viable Indigenous group willing to underwrite and operate the Turtle.

Despite my somewhat militant approach, Mr. Trevino was totally open to discussing potential alternative solutions. NFR owns the Turtle, there is no question about that. The Turtle is private property and I was really in no position to tell someone what they should do with their own property. But I also understand the significance that the Turtle holds for many of my close friends. Some of them met their significant others there, and many of them have cherished memories of the Turtle.

Mr. Trevino and I ate our lunch while we talked about possible solutions. I learned that he is sympathetic to Indigenous People and he is knowledgeable and respectful of their traditional ways. Mr. Trevino disclosed to me that when NFR acquired the Turtle, one of the first things he did was enroll in a sensitivity training tutorship with both Tuscarora and Seneca teachers alike to gain a better understanding and appreciation of Indigenous cultures. 

The dome or shell of the Turtle was airlifted by helicopter and placed atop the structure.

During that meeting, we came up with a potentially creative solution that we both found interesting. I was informed that the Turtle’s dome was put in place by a helicopter. The potential solution that we discussed was the possibility of NFR donating the building to a suitable new owner, on Seneca land or some other willing recipient.

The caveat was that the new owner would need to cover the costs of disassembling and transporting the Turtle on flatbed trucks, plus the costs of reassembling it, renovation and etc. In my opinion, the Turtle should be offered first to the Seneca Nation of Indians. If they do not want it or they cannot afford it, then it should be offered to the other Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee. Perhaps they can all collectively purchase and preserve the Turtle. 

I also suggested that if, for any reason, they pass on the opportunity, then it should be offered to the New York Power Authority who absolutely has the funds necessary to transport, reassemble, renovate and reopen the Turtle. This is an actual plan that could happen if the folks behind the “Save the Turtle” movement carefully consider their actions.

Wanda Wilson spoke about the Turtle at last week’s city council meeting. She identified her father, Duffy Wilson, as the Native founder of the Turtle. During her speech, Wanda Wilson said, “Some of our richest members of the Haudenosaunee…the Six Nations… our very wealthiest men; Millionaires…more money than this whole room put together… offered to revitalize the Turtle. To buy it, to keep it going and get the programs going again. They were given the price of $50 million… $100 million dollars to buy it. Because all of them are millionaires. Quite frankly they could be billionaires. And so there’s possibilities for the Turtle to get funding if you keep it.”

The staggering difference between $50 million and $100 million sounds like conjecture considering there is no record of any such offers to buy the Turtle. But if there is any interest, then the “wealthy men” Wilson referenced should now step forward into the light and double down on their offers. Money talks, and the opportunity to preserve the Turtle will require an amount of capital that is currently unknown. So why are people suddenly rushing into “stopping” a redevelopment plan that was first and last discussed in 2017?

An aerial view of the Turtle overlooking the Falls.

After my 2017 discussion with Roger Trevino, the Dyster administration was unwilling to consider granting NFR a height variance; having downzoned the site an astonishing 12 stories. I was happy to know that there was a possible way of preserving the Turtle. Mr. Trevino even agreed that there should be a ceremony held by Indigenous People if the Turtle should ever be disassembled.

When I started hearing the recent rumblings of “Save the Turtle,” my ears perked up. Why now? Why all of a sudden? And what’s the deal? I have kept a close eye on this situation for seven years and there has been no movement towards redevelopment, yet suddenly people are up in arms to “stop” something that isn’t happening. It doesn’t make sense.

What I learned is that private interests, backed by and cloaked in Indigenous support, wish to designate the Turtle with landmark status. They claim that this will preserve it. But this plan is absolutely flawed for several reasons: 

For one thing, there is zero feasibility plan in place to pay for renovating and reopening the Turtle; nor is there a viable operator to run the facility. There is no private investor or grant money even being discussed. 

The second problem is that this is private property, and we as a community shouldn’t be setting the precedent of dictating what private owners do with their own property through use of forceful tactics. 

The third problem is that there is no parking available whatsoever for the Turtle, which was one of its major operational flaws from the start.

I started wondering why “Save the Turtle” was picking up so much momentum, as my friends continued to contact me and ask for my opinion. Well, I don’t believe that granting the Turtle a landmark designation is preserving it. In reality, I see it as just the opposite. It will likely sit there, unused, for years to come. I’m all for preserving the Turtle, but this is just not the way to do it. As it stands, the movement is being fueled by emotions while logic and reasoning aren’t being fully considered. In all likelihood, good people are being used by powerful forces who wish to own and control the property.

I see the landmark designation as costly and counterproductive: If the Turtle becomes a landmark, then it cannot be moved. Period. Besides myself, has anyone else even tried to speak directly with NFR about what should be done with the Turtle? Or is everyone just telling them what they should do with their property?

We should at least pump our brakes and not rush right into this landmark designation. Our city council should first speak directly with NFR and ask them if they are willing to donate the building, or at least the outer turtle-shaped architecture. If NFR is still open to the idea, our city council should request that in writing. We should also ask NFR if they are willing to fund a feasibility study to determine the costs of disassembling the Turtle, moving it, and etc.

The next step will be to find a suitor who will cover the aforementioned costs. It costs nothing for our city council to approach the Seneca Nation of Indians or anyone else and ask them if they would be willing to take the Turtle. Rushing into a landmark designation ruins this possibility and, I believe, destroys all chance of actual preservation.

Architectural drawings provided by BKBM Engineers, structural consultant (image obtained by Carl Skompinski)

Imagine the Turtle on sovereign land, where it can be preserved and cherished forever.

Our city council should wait and follow up on the possibility of donating the building. I recognize all of the hard work by the real activists involved in the “Save the Turtle” movement, but I have to caution them all to consider the future. There is no actual financial plan in place regarding the landmark designation. So then, what will happen if this goes through?

Well, it must be noted that this is not truly a Native led movement because of the heavy involvement of the group called Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN). Any time our people in Niagara Falls hear “Buffalo-Niagara” we roll our eyes, because we know that this is always a one-sided deal. Where was PBN in 2017 when the possible redevelopment of the Turtle was officially announced? 

In my opinion, it appears that PBN are seeking to fund their own operations in these matters. Those organizations and individuals who stand to benefit from the landmark designation are Buffalo-based elitists.

If Preservation Buffalo Niagara is not open to the possibility of NFR donating the building to new owners, and moving the Turtle, then PBN is not truly interested in preserving the Turtle. Instead, they have their intentions set on the landmark designation. Why? Well, if PBN won’t support the plan for NFR to donate the Turtle and have it moved elsewhere, then PBN is actually interested in the land beneath the Turtle and not the building itself.

If our city council authorizes the landmark designation, then somewhere down the line this will likely become another eminent domain lawsuit. The city will claim that NFR has mismanaged a landmark, and they will call upon support from “Save the Turtle” to push the lawsuit. This may be the actual subversive goal for this sudden surge in interest regarding the Turtle.

The Turtle building today.

New York State highlighted the Turtle in their “Strategic Land Acquisition Plan (page 113)” in 2017, but they put forth no actual effort towards acquiring it. Our mayor has already embarked on a costly eminent domain lawsuit against NFR for his event center boondoggle. I find the timing of “Save the Turtle” awfully suspicious, having suddenly grown legs and popped its head out right after Mayor Restaino won the general election. 

As an activist, it’s my duty to blow the whistle on suspicious activity and potentially corrupt politics. I am cautioning those Indigenous activists who have been full steam ahead on securing the landmark designation. Pause and put your emotions aside, and consider what you’ve just read. The Turtle sits on the most prime property in the city, right across from the state park. As such, we should explore any and all options which will maximize benefits for the city and especially the taxpayers. Wake up people, there is more happening beneath the surface and we should gather all of the data before we all shoot ourselves in the foot.

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