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Cordish tenant Guido defies city

Niagara Falls Repoerter

April 06, 2010

By Frank Parlato Jr.

You have to admit it's brazen.

Do-nothing developer David Cordish, who acquired the lease to the Rainbow Centre mall in the heart of downtown Niagara Falls and let it sit idle and deteriorate for more than a decade, also acquired from the city a 275-by-150-foot vacant lot across from the mall.

Like the mall, it also remains vacant.

Once referred to as Parcel 4, it was a profitable parking lot for the city not too long ago. But then, along came the opportunist David Cordish.

In order to get Parcel 4 well below market value, Cordish promised a world-class development on the valuable downtown lot, even signing a contract with the city promising to build at least a 10,000-square-foot building on the Parcel 4 site.

But in what seems true to character, he never built anything.

A weak-kneed council later excused him from his obligation to build in return for his promise to develop, or more accurately to lease the property to people who actually would put money into it: the Flight of Angels helium balloon ride, which would be launched from the site.

After the approval, quite typically of Cordish, the balloon ride was cut down in scale and delivered less than was promised.

Still, it was something of an attraction even in its scaled-down form, but far less than what Cordish promised, a pattern Niagara Falls should know all too well from the out-of-town entrepreneur.

A few years later, the balloon ride ran completely out of gas -- figuratively speaking, of course -- and was grounded for good, giving Cordish another empty space to sit on, which he did. With his mammoth Rainbow Mall and the Parcel 4 lot, Cordish held two prime parcels -- and they were non-producing vacant spaces.

Both properties are only a few hundred feet from the boundaries of Niagara Falls State Park, helping to make downtown look as if it were a ghost town to tourists.

Amazingly, he got both these properties from the city based on his promise to develop them.

So what is Cordish now doing with the Parcel 4 site?

He, or more accurately his tenant, Debbie Guido, is apparently turning it into a parking lot. Ironic. Cordish snatched it away from the city when it was a paid parking lot -- where the people of this city got the profit -- on the pretense that he was going to develop it into something better. Now it is going to revert to a paid parking lot, only this time Cordish and his partners get the profits, not the city.

Cordish and Guido, who rents from him an adjacent souvenir store, JD Gifts, have an interesting history together.

In August 2003, according to multiple published reports and Cordish's own web site Cordish was reported to have spent $8.5 million -- including $2 million in state tax money -- to partner with Guido and open the Theater in the Mist, a small room with 60 seats inside Guido's gift shop, featuring a short film about the falls on a small screen.

It was never true that Cordish got the state grant since he scaled the project down and did not qualify for state money. However he never announced that on his web site as far as I could tell but rather by keeping the old press release that said he got the money on his web site led people to beleive he did get the money.

The small theater by all accounts could have been built for well under $1 million.

In any event, Cordish leased the Parcel 4 lot to Guido for around $45,000 per year with a provision that it is cancelable at any time.

Now it gets a little murky.

Niagara Falls municipal law states there shall be no stand-alone paid parking lots. If you have a paid parking lot in Niagara Falls, you have to have some kind of attraction to justify charging people money to park there.

With several partners, including Over the Falls Tour company owner Rick Whitney, Guido went to the Niagara Falls Planning Board and City Planner Tom DeSantis and told them they were going to put in a carnival-type attraction with a ferris wheel and merry-go-round, with an attached paid parking lot for about 50 cars.

Guido told the planning board they would essentially split the property -- some for amusement, some for parking.

The planning board is a nine-member citizen board made up of Niagara Falls residents who are authorized to prepare and adopt a land use plan and other such plans affecting the general welfare of the city.

They approved Guido's plan earlier this year as presented.

But according to several sources, it appears Guido may not put any amusements there at all.

"The ferris wheel is out. As to the merry-go-round, they are going to get the smallest one they can get -- if they can find one small enough -- and stick it in the corner," said one person in the construction business familiar with the paving contract for the site. "They do not care if they sell one ride. They are building a parking lot."

Last Saturday, the Guido group, without a merry-go-round or any type of amusement attraction, started illegally parking on their unpaved lot.

They extended the paid parking lot portion over gravel and grass to nearly the very end of the lot, covering over the area with cars where the amusement rides were supposed to go.

Guido partner, Over the Falls Tours owner Rick Whitney, told business neighbors that he is going to park more than 100 cars every day on the lot.

Some took it with a grain of salt.

Over the Falls Tours has a checkered history at best.

According to affidavits filed in a lawsuit before State Supreme Court Justice Frederick Marshall, former Over the Falls salesman Jodie Ghianni said the company falsely reported their sales to their landlords and claimed they set up an elaborate system of cheating landlords out of their rightful commissions.

Over the Falls denied the allegations and the lawsuit was settled out of court. But the company has lost several big tour-selling booth locations they have leased over the years.

Whitney, who is a towering 6-foot-5, has garnered complaints about his personal conduct in the past. He was arrested in July 2007 by Niagara Falls police for allegedly striking a 5-foot-tall woman and was led away in handcuffs only a few feet away from the site of the Guido illegal paid parking lot.

Whitney claimed he did not strike the woman but only pulled her hat down over her head when she said something that angered him.

Whitney, who needs a license from the city to run tours out of the Cordish Parcel 4 property, told the Reporter that he would sell his tours there and openly defy plans filed with the city.

"We will park 125 cars at a time and turn them over three times a day," Whitney said to amazed listeners Saturday. "We will use almost our entire lot for parking."

Based on how they parked cars this past weekend, there appears to be not even a semblance of compliance with the site plan, supporting Whitney's statements.

Tom DeSantis, the city's planning chief, tried to work with Guido to create an attractive and viable amusement area in downtown Niagara Falls.

He and the planning board may have been deceived.

It will be up to the city inspection department, headed by Dennis Virtuoso, who is also a county lawmaker, to ensure compliance with the plans submitted to the city.

The real losers, however, seem to be the taxpayers. The city gave away a revenue-producing parking lot to Cordish on his promise that he would develop it into an attraction.

Instead, he appears to be making it a parking lot with Guido.

It may, however, be a blessing in disguise.

If Cordish doesn't require Guido to do what she promised, there may be enough push-back against Cordish to unhinge his hopes to sell or rent one-third of the Rainbow Centre to either the county or the city for the planned Niagara County Community College culinary institute.

Cordish, as readers know, doesn't actually own the mall, but has a potentially voidable 75-year nearly rent-free lease from the city on this city-owned property.

The mall lease, if faced with a strong legal challenge, might be nullified since, like the Parcel 4 lot, Cordish had a contractual obligation to do something and he did not follow through, in open defiance of the agreement. Cordish is presently trying to get millions for subletting the lease, while already in violation of the terms of that lease.

The irony would be almost comical if it were not so unpalatable: The city owns the property and leases it to Cordish. Cordish is in violation of his lease with the city and pays almost no rent.

But now the city is talking about leasing from Cordish -- for big money -- their own property! It is almost as stupid as giving away a profitable public parking lot to Cordish so he can develop a parking lot and keep all the profits.

There may be a growing consensus that Cordish has taken enough from the people of Niagara County. County Legislator Vince Sandonato has already stated that Cordish is no partner to have on the culinary institute. Others may figure that out eventually, if not sooner.

Compared to the mammoth Rainbow Centre and what is at stake for Cordish, this $45,000 lease with Guido means little.

But it looms now as a public relations nightmare if Guido and Whitney defy City Hall.



  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.