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USA Niagara flops on Italian pavers for Glynn

Niagara Falls Repoerter

July 06, 2010

By Frank Parlato Jr.

You know, it's just not fair to Jimmy Glynn.

You know the guy.

He runs the Maid of the Mist boat tours and, some say, City Hall.

Mayor Paul Dyster's largest campaign contributor.

The guy behind the scenes in the now-defunct Building a Better Niagara fund that was designed to pay a portion of the salaries of the mayor's top-notch, out-of-town staff: City Administrator Donna Owens of Atlanta ($110,000 annually), Economic Chief Peter Kay of Ohio ($100,000), and Corporation Counsel Craig Johnson of Buffalo ($93,000). And also an engineer from Los Angeles ($90,000) who got fired shortly after it was discovered by theNiagara Falls Reporter that he did not have an engineering license.

The mayor's brightest and best, all from out of town, and Jimmy Glynn wanted to pay part of their salaries -- secretly, anonymously -- until the Reporter found e-mails suggesting he would not only pay them, but have his son sit in on the hiring process, too.

Was Glynn to both choose and pay the people who worked at Dyster's City Hall?

Ultimately, these revelations caused the secret fund to implode.

And city taxpayers got stuck paying the highest salaries in Niagara Falls history for their out-of-town public servants.

Jimmy Glynn is also the guy whom the Reporter exposed for paying zero rent to New York state for his Maid of the Mist boat contract in the state park.

The state pays him about $600,000 annually to control not only the $7 million annual boat concession (Glynn keeps all the profits), but also, bizarrely, Glynn gets 75 percent of the admission money to the public observation deck. On top of that, in 2002, the state paid millions in taxpayer money to redesign the observation deck so that people who pay private businessman Glynn to visit the observation deck must exit through Glynn's souvenir store.

And Glynn is the guy whom the Reporter caught working secretly with certain Niagara Parks commissioners in Ontario to lower Glynn's rent for his Ontario Maid of the Mist boat tour concession from 15 percent to 5.5 percent (when other companies were willing to pay more and were secretly excluded from having a chance to bid), and yes, we caught him, and yes, it made national news in Canada, and yes, the Ontario government was forced to put the contract out to bid.

Now Glynn has to compete with Disney Cruise Lines, Ripley Entertainment, Xantium, Mariposa, Circle Line and others for the right to operate the Maid of the Mist boat tour on the Canadian side.

The bidding is expected to commence in Ontario this summer. The rent is expected to go above 25 percent, making it true that theReporter's expose was at least partially responsible for what will be as much $100 million more in revenue for the Niagara Parks Commission.

New York officials also secretly negotiated a deal with Glynn in 2003 that dropped his rent from him paying the taxpayers 10 percent to the taxpayers paying him. When we exposed it, unlike in Ontario, there was no public outrage. If Glynn paid fair market rent, it would singlehandedly fill the budget shortfalls for New York parks in the western region -- more than $1.5 million.

This is the same Jimmy Glynn who sat on the advisory board of taxpayer-funded USA Niagara when they decided to spend $7.9 million on fixing the street in front of the Comfort Inn hotel, which Glynn just happened to be in the process of quietly buying.

Glynn bought the hotel and a 27,000-square-foot strip mall that fronts on Old Falls Street. USA Niagara transformed the street with new Italian pavers, sidewalks, bicycle racks, old-fashioned streetlights, benches and a "mist" fountain.

Funny, too: As Glynn was quietly securing the Comfort Inn, USA Niagara was quietly buying out Glynn's competitors, paying almost $2 million of taxpayers' money to eliminate three potential threats to Glynn's retail enterprises.

Dyster personally endorsed one of these to the Council: the plan to buy out businessman Lou Antonacci's street-vending lease, which gave Antonacci the right to set up street carts directly in front of the Comfort Inn's shops and restaurants. At the time Dyster endorsed it, he did not disclose that his largest campaign contributor was in the process of buying the Comfort Inn complex -- something he almost certainly knew.

USA Niagara paid Antonacci $310,000 of taxpayers' money for a lease that Antonacci was paying only $7,500 a year for and that had only four years to expiry.

Certain state officials also cooked up a plan to "reconstruct" the Robert Moses Parkway. By doing so, they would just happen to have to move the state park's entranceway from where it is presently to right in front of Glynn's new hotel and stores -- at a cost of about $13 million in taxpayer money.

Coincidences, you say?

Government would never go to such lengths just to help one private businessman.

Or would it?

Glynn has a long history of coincidences.

Consider: Niagara Falls State Park is advertised as being an "Olmsted park." Frederick Law Olmsted designed the park as an all-green reservation. But in 1987, park officials 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 a parking lot built near his attraction.

Perhaps it was mere coincidence -- like the fact that Dyster tried to impose a zoning ordinance that would limit the height of all new downtown buildings to 80 feet, which just happens to be the height of Glynn's hotel.

If it hadn't been for the fact that the state is out of money and that Glynn is occupied in fighting to keep his Maid of the Mist lease in Ontario, there is little doubt in some minds that the conversion of all of downtown, as well as much of the state park, for the benefit of James Glynn would have been accomplished already.

Adding insult to injury, Glynn should never have allowed USA Niagara to handle the road improvement in front of his hotel.

Consider their shabby "improvement" of nearby Third Street.

Broken sign posts are in the ground. Decorative grates around tree bases rusted and were removed by the city. The wood-paneled garbage cans and benches are rotting. The pavers in the crosswalks are sinking.

Officials at USA Niagara, sources say, are annoyed at the city for putting asphalt over their beautiful pavers, but city officials told theReporter that they have no choice, since the street is becoming a series of bumps and sink holes.

Some city officials are recommending that all pavers on Third Street be removed and replaced with blacktop.

Then there are the Third street "cut-outs" -- the hallmark of USA Niagara's streetscape project. The cut-outs are enlarged areas of sidewalk that intrude to where the road would otherwise be, and the road is narrowed to the point that cars have a difficult time going in opposite directions.

The street cut-outs are a nuisance for plows, cause traffic congestion and increase the possibility of accidents. Aside from the problem of maintaining an irregular road that narrows at inconvenient intervals, it is uninviting to motorists who don't like traveling on a road without room to pull over and park. Businesses on Third Street have nowhere to park. Maybe that is why there are more vacant buildings than occupied ones there today.

According to sources, the city would like to remove all Third Street cut-outs and restore the road to what it was before USA Niagara spent $2.5 million there.

That brings us back to Glynn.

USA Niagara's other streetscape project was the remodeling of Old Falls Street in front of Glynn's hotel. USA Niagara decided to pave the street with expensive pavers imported from Italy.

Funny: Just like the fact that all our top City Hall officials come from out of town for fancy salaries, USA Niagara did not use local masonry products, but fancy pavers from Italy. Locally produced, decorative concrete would have saved hundreds of thousands of our dollars.

Italian bricks had to be laid with special tools by experienced craftsmen, and are not well suited for this climate.

Still, it is funny.

The city whose streets are pocked with dangerous potholes did, while Glynn sat on the advisory board of USA Niagara, pave the street in front of Glynn's hotel with Italian pavers.

Maybe only Glynn cares about well-paved streets.

Dyster redirected up to $3 million meant to pave Buffalo Avenue -- a pothole-laden disgrace -- for his planned train station.

The money for paving Buffalo Avenue was to come through the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council. Dyster quietly told the council to apply it to the train station instead. And as you read this, Wendel Engineering is drawing on $8 million of city funds to do paperwork and engineering, planning a station for an obsolete method of travel -- trains -- while we fail to pave our main streets leading into town.

But getting back to Old Falls Street: After only one year, the pavers are settling poorly.

According to sources, USA Niagara flew the owner of the Italian paver company from Rome to look at the problem. While he cannot say exactly why the bumps occurred, the problem can't be fixed until the tourist season ends. It will take 30 days. The road must be closed in the meantime.

When we look at the sinking pavers over on Third Street, we are peering into the future. Four years from now, Old Falls Street will likely be a series of collapsing bricks, dappled with blacktop patchwork. In several locations, they already put blacktop over Italian pavers.

It is sad when gifted businessmen like Glynn get government officials to do expensive, taxpayer-funded jobs to improve their private investments, and government doesn't get it right.

Why didn't they just give the $7.9 million directly to Glynn and let him build his own road and pocket the difference?

You can bet Glynn wouldn't waste any of his own money on extravagant pavers from Rome.



  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.