You’d have to accept a lot of events as coincidences to believe James Glynn and Mayor Paul Dyster, along with various New York state officials, have not secretly planned for the further enrichment of the Glynn family interests, which already owns the Maid of the Mist Steamboat Co.
Coincidentally or not, the conversion of much of downtown Niagara Falls is being done to benefit, it appears, mainly Glynn, who has now become City Hall’s most favored developer.
Unlike most developers (who spend their own money), all of Glynn’s benefits — in fact, probably James Glynn’s whole development plan — will cost taxpayers money and Glynn little, if anything, at all.
Various aspects of the plan will be paid for by the city and the state. All are championed by Dyster.
Glynn was Dyster’s largest campaign contributor.
From the beginning of his administration, Dyster worked to get Glynn benefits from USA Niagara Development Corp., the state agency charged with developing downtown Niagara Falls.
Coincidentally, Glynn is on the advisory board of USA Niagara, along with Dyster. USA Niagara is funding a $7.9 million plan to renovate the West Mall, which is 420 feet of road frontage along the north border of Glynn’s newly purchased hotel, the Comfort Inn, and its adjacent strip of stores.
(Click here for a larger view of the above picture)
USA Niagara is replacing the old brick walkway in front of Glynn’s complex with new cobblestone, new sidewalks, bicycle racks, old-fashioned street lights, benches and — ironically, for the Maid of the Mist owner — a giant “mist” fountain, which descends over rocks culled from the gorge where the Maid of the Mist boats operate.
Dyster claims everything is being done solely to benefit Niagara Falls by creating a pathway between Seneca Niagara Casino and the state park. What he didn’t disclose when he championed the plan was that Glynn’s new development was smack in between.
Dyster claims this project will restore the walkway as it was when it was Old Falls Street — a conglomeration of individually owned stores and attractions where many city residents earned money from tourism. What he did not say is that Old Falls Street will now be a virtual monopoly given to Glynn.
Meanwhile, as Glynn was securing the Comfort Inn last summer, Dyster and USA Niagara were buying out Glynn’s competitors. Their plan includes $1.6 million of taxpayers’ money to buy the Wintergarden — a historic glass building that stands between the East and West malls and is owned by “Smokin’ Joe” Anderson — and buying back vending rights to the East Mall, which gave Anderson the right to sell retail products outdoors there.
This will ensure Anderson will not compete with Glynn in the East Mall. But the Wintergarden might be used to compete against Glynn’s retail enterprises. Consequently, USA Niagara dedicated money to demolish it. Ironic — when USA Niagara was founded, it developed a master plan. One of its cardinal points was saving the Wintergarden.
In November, a plan to make the Wintergarden an open city center that would house shops and artisan studios drew support for the building’s preservation. Dyster declared it DOA, saying, “The Wintergarden’s time has come.”
Odd, before Glynn came to develop, Dyster said the Wintergarden was an irreplaceable architectural treasure.
Dyster also endorsed a plan to buy the West Mall lease from businessman Lou Antonacci, whose vendors compete with the Comfort Inn’s shops and restaurants. At the time Dyster endorsed it, he did not reveal Glynn was in the process of buying the Comfort Inn complex. Did Glynn or Dyster inform USA Niagara, which will pay Antonacci $310,000 of taxpayers’ money?
Additionally, Dyster supports a plan to get Glynn $15 million in tax breaks — more than he paid for the property — from the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency. Dyster wants to help get the Comfort Inn off the tax rolls — costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
Intriguingly, also, of the five major developers surrounding the new Glynn development, the mayor officially refuses to speak to three of them. USA Niagara bought out the other two. But Glynn is used to getting government aid to eliminate competition.
Glynn has had monopoly rights for his Maid of the Mist boats on both banks of the lower Niagara since 1971. In 2002, New York State Parks, without competitive bidding, renewed Glynn’s lease. A spokesperson for the park said that, since Glynn had the lease on the Canadian side, it made sense to renew it.
One thing she failed to disclose is the Canadian lease expires in 2009, but state park officials gave Glynn a 40-year lease — making it possible for the Canadian side to say, “He has the American lease for 40 years. How can we give the Canadian side to anyone else?”
Glynn pays an estimated $700,000 a year to the park, or about 10 percent of reported gross revenues.
On the Canadian side, taxpayers fare better. Glynn pays around $5 million for his monopoly there — about 20 percent of reported sales.
Still, taxpayers there might wonder if park officials are acting in their interest. World-famous Ripley’s Entertainment, trying to bid for the Canadian lease this year, was rebuffed by the Niagara Parks Commission, even though Ripley’s concept included better boats, longer and more varied rides, and an interactive pre-boat “wonderland” experience.
Glynn’s boats have neither seats nor bathrooms. In the height of the season, the antiquated boats are overcrowded and people wait hours to board. They offer only one type of tour — of 15 minutes duration.
But commissioners would not even meet with Ripley executives, causing them to lodge a complaint with the Ontario Cabinet. The chairman of the Niagara Parks Review Committee resigned over it.
Glynn, however, got a new, no-bid, 25-year lease in Canada.
But why does Glynn keep his attraction mediocre?
People are going to visit Niagara Falls anyway. Most will take the boat ride. The less there is to do in Niagara Falls, the more profitable for Glynn.
In fact, a few years ago, Glynn profited from the state park’s elimination of an attraction. Glynn reportedly paid $5 million toward a $25 million state project to “upgrade” the Prospect Point Observation Tower, which served as the launching point for his boats on the American shore. The elevators that led down to his boats were improved, but curiously, elevators that went up to the observation tower — which gave tourists their only aerial view on the American side — were eliminated, along with the tower itself.
The state redesigned an observation deck slightly above ground level. However, people who visit it must exit through the Glynn-owned Maid of the Mist souvenir store.
Speaking of more coincidences: Dyster recently set aside $500,000 of taxpayer money for a defense fund to preserve Seneca rights to run a casino. Dyster wants taxpayers to protect the ultra-rich, tax-free Seneca.
Why? Seneca pays Albany on slot machine revenues. Much of that goes to USA Niagara and is used to improve land near Glynn’s investments. Curiously, USA Niagara lists the Seneca Casino under its projects list on its Web site. Another coincidence: Dyster is pushing a zoning ordinance limiting the height of buildings downtown. Currently, buildings can be 200 feet tall. Under Dyster’s proposal, new construction close to the state park would be limited to 80 feet in height.
Hotel developers may be reluctant to develop if they cannot build high-rises. Until you get higher than 80 feet, you cannot see much of the river. In fact, on the American side, a very tall hotel is needed to see the falls itself — if, and only if, it sits close to the park.
Dyster’s plan to limit buildings near the park will eliminate any chance for any building in Niagara Falls, N.Y., to have an actual view of the falls (other than the 144-foot-tall One Niagara). Coincidentally, while the mayor wants to limit the height of buildings to a maximum of 80 feet, the approximate height of Glynn’s Comfort Inn is 80 feet.
Coincidences continuously abound. Going back to the biggest: Niagara Falls State Park is advertised as being an “Olmsted park.” Frederick Law Olmsted designed the park as an all-green reservation. But, 101 years later, in 1987, Albany felled acres of trees to make a giant parking lot near the Maid of the Mist entrance. Prior to 1987, people visiting Niagara Falls parked in city lots and, consequently, patronized shops there. The state destroyed Olmsted’s plan, and the city lost millions in parking and tourist business. But one man benefited: James Glynn. He had at last a parking lot near his attraction.
Today, the state is again working to aid Glynn, with a proposal by USA Niagara and the State Office of Parks to redesign the Robert Moses Parkway. Sketches show the new parkway design will reroute traffic off the parkway right in front of Glynn’s hotel on the south side.
Eureka! On the north side, a new walkway and fountain; on the south side, a new parkway and much more traffic.
Of 19.58 miles of the Robert Moses Parkway, the state feels the need to change the section in front of Glynn’s hotel “to increase the flow of traffic in the park and to the city.” As for Dyster’s role, the Niagara Gazette criticized him for being secretive and doing little, editorializing, “The mayor’s actions, or lack of them, bring two words to mind: Cautious and secretive.”
They got it only half right.
Dyster has been active, but many of his actions seem to benefit one man -- James Glynn, who seems to have City Hall, the state park and even the Ontario Park by the tail.
And that, my friends, is probably no coincidence.
Frank Parlato Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.