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Hot Button: Hanging tough in Niagara Falls

kc kratt

Twenty years ago, Paul Dyster was operating a home brew business from a stall at the Niagara Falls Flea Market. He could make a killer batch of Kölsch, but none of his customers knew then that the former diplomat with a Ph.D. in international relations would one day become the mayor of Niagara Falls.

Dyster was reelected last November, but he still helps his wife run Niagara Tradition, the home brew business he started after returning to his hometown in the early nineties without a job. He became active in regional planning and city politics, and, after serving as a council member from 1999 to 2003, was elected to his first term as mayor in 2007.

As mayor, Dyster has carved out a reputation for doing things a little differently. He lists his home telephone number and home address on his website; he was an early advocate for allowing Nik Wallenda to tightrope across Niagara Falls—despite the fact that his great grandfather fell to his death in the Niagara Gorge 112 years to the day before Wallenda’s walk—and his administration is offering to pay a portion of the student loans of college graduates willing to move to a downtown neighborhood in the Falls.
But the city faces daunting challenges, none greater than the current dispute with the Seneca Nation over unpaid casino revenues. During a recent interview, Dyster offered insights on the student loan offer, the dispute with the Seneca Nation, and the future of Niagara Falls.

What’s been the impact on the city of Wallenda’s walk across the Falls?
I think we scored one of the biggest public relations triumphs in the history of Niagara Falls over the course of that weekend. Both sides of the Falls saw about 150,000 people who witnessed the event firsthand. Somewhere between 13 million and 16 million people watched it on ABC that night.

Not everyone who wants to perform stunts at Niagara Falls is Nik Wallenda. We have a lot of amateurish, crazy people who ask us to lift regulations against stunting on their behalf. But I thought that, in the final analysis, the Falls themselves became the real star of the evening.  There was one shot where you saw this tiny little figure—Nik Wallenda—against this vast cascade of water and it was breathtaking and awe inspiring.

We saw an initial bump in hotel reservations not just for the weekend of the event, but there was some bump thereafter. I don’t think anyone could expect a single event to be a game changer. But we’re always looking for the next thing.

There’s an effort underway to develop a longer-term attraction, based upon Nik’s desire to do something here, maybe on the anniversary of his walk. I don’t mean walking the gorge again, but perhaps we’ll set up a semipermanent exhibition space with big-top style tents that would house performances by Wallenda and perhaps other circus-type performers.

The Seneca Tribe that operates the Seneca Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls has withheld more than $60 million in payments due to a gaming rights dispute with the State of New York. An arbitration panel is trying to resolve the issue now, but how has the revenue shortfall impacted the city and do you expect to recover the lost revenue in 2013?
Our follow up to the Wallenda walk wasn’t as vigorous as it should have been if we had the casino tax revenues. It is the case that the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation has had to do some short-term—we hope—temporary layoffs of people as a result of the casino funds not being delivered. They’ve also had to cut back on their advertising.

There’s blame to go around on both sides. A lot of people don’t realize that the fifty-three acres the casino is built on are Seneca sovereign land. We’ve created an Indian reservation in the center of the city. That may survive the passing of the casino. Even if we can’t keep the casino open legally, we still have a Seneca Nation located in the center of Niagara Falls. It’s a tax free zone. They didn’t just buy the property to open the casino; it had to be their sovereign territory.

The arbitration is underway; the fact that the two sides have come to the table is a positive thing. Each appointed an arbitrator to a panel and the two of them jointly appointed a third. The people who were appointed appear to be very capable. They’re expected to return a judgment in the first half of next year, we think, and presumably then that would clear the way for the city to get paid.

I’m very hopeful we will be paid. In fact, in the budget I deployed yesterday,  we budgeted a small amount, about $5.5 million in casino revenues—that compares to $17 million to $18 million we were budgeting annually when we were receiving the (casino) funds and that’s in recognition of the fact that we believe the arbitration will end in 2013. We hope and believe it will end successfully.

[Editor’s note: In November 2012, Niagara Falls received a $13 million allocation from the State Power Authority as a short-term measure to alleviate the city’s fiscal crisis, as the casino revenue negotiations continue. In December, as we went to press, the 2013 budget was still a matter of contention between Dyster and the city council.]  

The city made an offer to pay a portion of the student loans of young people willing to move to a neighborhood in the city. Has anyone taken the city up on this offer yet?
We’ve had more than 500 inquiries for twenty slots. We’re receiving applications until November 16. We’ve gotten a lot of national recognition for the plan. Its captured the imagination of a generation of young people. We’ve gotten some messages from young people who’ve said, “I don’t think I’m going to qualify, but I’m interested to check out a city that would think that way.”

It’s a pilot program, so we’re starting out with twenty slots for the first year. Students will be able to receive the national average student loan debt, which is currently pegged at $291 per month for two years.

Until the Culinary Institute opened, we had no college or university in the city center, and trying to revitalize a city center with no college students is like trying to make beer with no yeast.

Is the Culinary Institute providing momentum for revitalizing downtown?
There’s a huge amount of positive momentum downtown. The key move was the demolition of the Winter Garden and the restoration of Old Falls Street, as a pedestrian-friendly right-of-way. The Culinary Institute is now open, there’s also a deli, a bookstore, a bakery, a wine-tasting facility which links up the wine trail, and there’s a new five-star restaurant called Savor that just opened. Savor is as fancy as any restaurant I’ve been to in Manhattan.

The Culinary Institute is structured as an educational institution [for Niagara County Community College students] but at the same time it’s a tourist attraction. The same day the ribbon was cut on the Culinary Institute, the Urban Land Institute also deployed their initial set of recommendations on how to renovate the remaining portion of the Rainbow Mall.

This was the symbol of the failure of downtown. This was a vast, empty space that’s been derelict and falling into disrepair for ten years. A few years ago, people said it was hopeless, that we were never going to bring people back to downtown Niagara Falls with this big white elephant sitting there. In November, we expect to get the final report back from the Urban Land Institute, which we hope to fold into some sort of request for proposals that would be issued in the next few months.

But it’s also our events strategy, bringing people downtown for concerts and other events we’ve held, that, I think, has helped leverage the Culinary Institute development. The Culinary Institute on top of other things happening on the street now, I think, is leveraging additional development downtown.

You list your home address and telephone number on your website. Do constituents come to your house or call you?
Once in a great while they come over in person, but I do get a lot of phone calls at my house, especially during blizzards and other bad weather events.

Why are they calling you?
Because my number is out there and they feel like, “Hey, if I have a problem, why not go right to the top?”

What do people say?
The plow hasn’t come down my street yet. Things like that. One of the interesting things about Niagara Falls is that it’s a small big city. Any type of urban problem, we’ve got that here, but on a smaller scale. We have Bloods and Crips. We have crack houses. But we’re small enough that people think that if they’ve got a problem, they should be able to take it straight to the mayor.

Buffalo native Dave Seminara writes for the New York Times, Outside, AOL, and a variety of regional magazines.

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