By Mike Hudson, The Niagara Falls Reporter
The standard definition of economic development is that of efforts seeking to improve the economic well-being and quality of life for a community by creating and retaining jobs and supporting or growing incomes and the tax base.
Over the past eight years, nearly $200 million – the city’s share of slot machine revenue generated by the Seneca Niagara Casino – has been spent by Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster on what he refers to as economic development projects.
When asked, as he has been repeatedly, why he can’t use the money to put more cops on the streets or provide tax relief to beleaguered property owners here, Dyster says that those things don’t fall under the economic development umbrella, and the agreement the city has with the state won’t allow it.
You’d think that eight years and $200 million might add up to something you could point at and say, “Now that’s economic development!”
Not in Dyster’s Niagara Falls though.
When the casino first opened at the end of 2003, there was a lot of talk about what would happen to the run down neighborhoods north on Niagara Street and east of John B. Daly Boulevard. The thousands of casino employees would need nearby housing said the Seneca leaders and white politicians – including then-councilman Dyster.
Replacing blighted neighborhoods with new residential properties, along with the amenities to serve the prosperous new homeowners seemed like the very definition of economic development, so much so that the private company, Niagara Falls Redevelopment, began buying up much of the land east of the casino.
So what happened? Absolutely nothing. The formerly run down neighborhoods have now become genuinely blighted and are a breeding ground for the sort of crime that has propelled Niagara Falls to the position of Most Dangerous Place in New York State and the 53rd Most Dangerous City in the United States.
Property crime is rampant and murder, rape, assault and armed robbery are all too common. The area adjacent to the glitzy casino is a veritable war zone, and the innocent victims often include out of towners who made the mistake of simply crossing Niagara Street to the convenience store to pick up some snacks to take back to their hotel rooms.
So no effort to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood immediately adjacent to the casino. For that you have to walk over to Whirlpool Street, where the Aquarium of Niagara beckons. Earlier this year, Dyster and the city Council found a way to throw $150,000 in casino cash at the aquarium in order to improve penguin habitat.
The $150,000 represented a down payment on a project that will ultimately cost $15 million!
State Sen. Rob Ortt, who represents Niagara Falls in Albany, has proposed reversing the current split between the city and the state, so that the city gets 75 percent and the state 25 percent instead of the other way around, which is how it is now.
Had Ortt’s formula been in place since the beginning, the city would have already received around $600 million, rather than the nearly $200 million it has collected.
But the $600 million would still go to City Hall, where, in their wisdom, Niagara Falls voters have seen fit to return Dyster for another four years.
Seeing as how he has spent $200 million with no real economic development to show for it, would giving him triple that amount be advisable?