BY MIKE HUDSON
For Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, it’s not about the destination but the journey. Which is why, since taking office in January 2008, the city has been subjected to numerous and lengthy forays into the unknowable unknown, for the most part without any measurable result aside from money squandered and energy spent.
The new courthouse on North Main Street gave an early indication of Dyster’s leadership abilities. The state said it should cost $14 million but, after firing city engineer Bob Curtis on his first day in office and turning the project over to private engineering firms and contractors, Dyster’s Taj Mahal cost $46.5 million.
The building has been plagued by plumbing, security and other problems ever since it opened but, for Dyster, the spending of the money and the sight of construction on North Main Street represented the end rather than the means.
It’s kind of like the new train station on Whirlpool Street. Actually, at this point, calling it a train station is inaccurate, since no trains are scheduled to stop there.
Dyster went ahead and spent $44 million of other people’s money to build a facility for Amtrak that the money losing railroad has shown no interest whatsoever in occupying.
Remember, it’s not about the destination but the journey.
No contract currently exists between the city and any prospective tenant of the new building, not even with the city’s own Underground Railroad Commission, which is supposed to open a museum there. No stores, coffee shops or railroads have been enticed to take up residence in Dyster’s 22,000-square-foot white elephant.
Since 1978, Amtrak officials have been quite content with the 800 square feet they operate on Willard Avenue near Lockport Road. Peak traffic at the Niagara Falls station averages 20 passengers an hour, an event that occurs no more than four times each day. The smallish waiting room, about the size of a good sized dentist’s office, never lacks for seating, even with the hustle and bustle of 10 people getting on a train as another 10 disembark.
Yet another Dyster misadventure occurred on 72nd Street, where a simple road reconstrcution job turned into a nightmare that left residents without running water for two winters in a row as the mayor attempted to conceal his own culpability in the matter.
The Reporter has owned the story of the 72nd Street frozen water line for the past two years. We were there, literally on the street, from day one. The failure to replace water lines and bury them below the freeze line was a $300,000 problem that Dyster turned into a fiasco that will cost more than $1 million to rectify.
Although the project contractor, the city engineering department and others warned him, the mayor acted as though he was surprised when the 72nd Street water main froze. He said there were “a half dozen theories” as to the event occurred. He commissioned a study.
When the study was completed, in April 2014, and showed that it was his own disregard that was to blame for the fiasco, Dyster put it in his desk drawer and hoped everyone would forget he commissioned it. It was only after the Buffalo News filed a Freedom of Information Law complaint that the report was made public.
When Dyster was elected, he said he would shun candidates from Niagara Falls for high ranking city positions and conduct nationwide searches for the “best and the brightest” job seekers from coast to coast. This has been another unmitigated disaster.
Dyster hired Peter Kay of Toledo, Ohio, as an economic development director at a salary of $100,000 a year. After no economic development occurred, Kay was fired by the city Council after three years.
He hired Ali Marzban, an Iranian immigrant from Los Angeles, as the city engineer, firing him a couple months later after the Reporter revealed Marzban wasn’t licensed to practice engineering in the United States.
Roger Melchior was another one of the best but not quite the brightest of Dyster’s hires. The Florida fireman who had been unemployed since forever, was beset by injuries and illness until some racist remarks on the internet led to his dismissal just seven months after his hiring.
The reality is that the only one of Dyster’s out of town hires who has stuck around is Donna Owens, his city administrator. Owens had her pay slashed by the city Council – from $100,000 a year to $70,000 – and the mayor’s loyalty to her continues to confound even his strongest supporters, like Lewiston businessman Craig Avery, who has publicly called for her dismissal.
It would be easy to go on. But maybe we should conclude this little essay with a note about the Hamister hotel deal.
Remember way back to 2013? Obviously you don’t, or you wouldn’t have elected Dyster to a third term this past autumn.
In short, the mayor said that, if the deal wasn’t done by November 2013, do nothing developer and Dyster campaign contributor Mark Hamister would pick up his ball and go home.
Former Niagara Falls city councilman Sam Fruscione asked a simple question. Did Hamister actually have enough money to build the hotel? Because Dyster was proposing to give real estate appraised at $1.5 million to his buddy for a paltry $100,000.
Fruscione, who was running for reelection, had the wrath of God brought down on him. Cronies of Hamister and Dyster such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo, U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and the entire Buffalo media mounted a smear campaign against him that accused him of everything from blocking progress to defending the Mafia.
It turned out of course, that Fruscione was correct. Hamister didn’t have the money, and continues to not have the money. Nearly three years after the once popular Fruscione was thrown off the Council by an angry electorate, and months after Dyster was returned to office by the same individuals, Hamister has done absolutely nothing.
You pay your money and you take your choice, the man said. And in Niagara Falls, you did and you do.