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Cordish, Antotonacci hire Whitney to make bad deal look foolish

Niagara Falls Repoerter

May 25, 2010

By Frank Parlato Jr.

Some might call it municipal stupidity.

For instance, Niagara Falls is the highest-taxed city in the USA in proportion to our residents' income and the value of our real estate.

And the only city in the world that had their state government create a tax-free nation called Seneca to compete against them. Stupidly, they welcomed their tax-free competitors with open arms.

Niagara Falls has the most-visited state park in America, run by Albany and advertised as operating under the principles of Frederick Law Olmsted, who prohibited all businesses in the park. The park operates largely as a souvenir, parking and restaurant business with a waterfall feature -- in direct competition with tax-paying businesses. Niagara Falls is perhaps the only city in the world stupid enough to attract 10 million tourists annually and still be broke.

Niagara Falls also possessed the greatest natural hydroelectric power on earth. We were called the "Power City." In 1957, we foolishly gave control to Albany. Today, residents do not get the use of one single watt of hydropower generated by the Niagara River. Other cities and states get our inexpensive hydropower, while we pay the third-highest electricity rates in America.

You have to work hard to achieve that kind of stupidity.

Then you have the city's relationship with developers.

A good example of our stupidity is our relationship with David Cordish. In 1982, Cordish got a 75-year lease on one of the key downtown properties, the Rainbow Centre Mall, at 5 percent of normal rental rates, normal rent being $2 million per year at $10 per square foot. He pays $100,000.

His promise, in return for the low rent, was to operate a first-class mall. The mall has been vacant for 10 years.

At that low rent, he can afford to keep the mall vacant indefinitely and merely wait for someone to buy him out for millions. Somehow his landlord, our foolish city, has not had the intelligence to evict him. Lately, the city has been talking to him about paying him millions to buy out a portion of his lease. Where stupidity with developers is concerned, Niagara Falls is an expert.

The city also gave to Cordish a municipal parking lot that was once very profitable for this city, in return for his promise to develop a world-class building on it. Thirteen years have passed. The lot is still vacant. We have not taken it back. Now he's brazenly turned it into a parking lot again, but this time he reaps the profits, not the public.

He partnered with another do-nothing developer, Lou Antonacci. Antonacci, as readers know, was able to wangle from former mayor Irene Elia the right to exclusively operate attractions on Old Falls Street's West Pedestrian Mall. It was a sweetheart deal, and the low, $7,500-a-year rent was based on Antonacci's promise to develop a world-class miniature golf course attraction.

You've seen them in other cities -- magical miniature golf courses with waterfalls and exciting topography, live greenery and thematic adventure courses with dinosaurs, pirates or African animals. This one promised to be better. According to reports at the time, Elia called Antonacci's plan "Disneyesque."

Like Cordish, Antonacci delivered nothing, other than a flat-as-a-pancake, non-thematic, undersized attraction that would not qualify as even the smallest or most uninteresting miniature golf course anywhere.

His failure to deliver has been mentioned as one of several reasons for Elia's embarrassing defeat for re-election in 2003.

Nevertheless, for years Antonacci controlled Old Falls Street, which was closed to automobile traffic so he could operate his attractions. But there were no attractions. Antonacci merely turned the graceful pedestrian mall into an unsightly flea market with food vendors who sold out of carts and a tiny miniature golf course that no one ever used.

As things generally work out for this city and do-nothing developers, if stupidity got them into a mess, stupidity generally got them out. In this instance, Antonacci's lease was bought out by the state at City Hall's behest for a reported $310,000.

Imagine: With only four years remaining on his lease, Antonacci got more than $75,000 per year for a lease for which he paid less than $7,500 per year.

This year, Antonacci and Cordish partnered on Parcel 4, that parking lot that used to make people of this city more than $145,000 per year before our elected leaders gave it to Cordish. In order to be able to use the property, Antonacci went before the Planning Board and described a grandiose, if not "Disneyesque," plan. It was going to be an amusement park with a double-decker carousel and a giant Ferris wheel, with 51-car parking lot to support the attraction.

True to form, he opened the parking lot without the attraction. Instead of the 51-car parking lot approved by the Planning Board, Antonacci doubled it to a 100-car parking lot, using the area where the amusement park was supposed to go as an unpaved gravel and grass parking lot.

A source close to Antonacci said that because the Niagara Falls Reporter has repeatedly publicized this brazen public-to-private parking lot conversion scheme, Antonacci might be shamed into actually putting in some kind of attraction, as he did when he put in his undersized miniature golf course.

Meanwhile, to complete a perfect picture of stupidity, Antonacci hired Rick Whitney, age 50, as his parking lot attendant. Whitney, who stands 6-foot-5, jumps, screams, cuts capers, gyrates, shrieks, contorts his body and yells at tourists to get them into the lot. If a tourist does not park there, Whitney is not above offering an impolite hand gesture or discouraging words, replete with expletives.

He appears at times as a deranged maniac or a perfect fool to many tourists, as photos published by the Reporter confirm. It is hard to imagine why a grown man would act like this.

Whitney was, or perhaps still is, a partner in the once-prosperous Over the Falls Tour Company. The company had some excellent tour-selling locations and was on the high road to prosperity. Questions over ethics and accurate reporting, as detailed in affidavits filed in a lawsuit before state Supreme Court Justice Frederick Marshall, may help explain the company's dramatic downfall. Whitney is alleged to have been thrown out of one or more prime tour-selling locations, and it is alleged he and/or his company may have falsified sales reports to their landlord(s) on their gross rent leases, according to court documents filed in June of 2006.

Over the Falls spokespeople have repeatedly denied this.

Whitney refused to return multiple calls requesting an interview.

Up until recently, Whitney's company had a lease at One Niagara to sell tours. Among other things that occurred, Whitney was accused by his partner's father-in-law of stealing cameras and pocketing Internet rent money from tourists. Whitney denied the allegations.

Tour salesman Keith Levine, who worked with Whitney, said it was "impossible" to tell if Whitney actually stole the cameras.

"Oversight was lax," Levine said, "since Whitney and others were on the honor system."

More serious allegations emerged. Whitney was accused of abusing patrons when he was unsuccessful at selling them a tour. There was suspicion of falsifying sales records.

When Levine tried to monitor actual sales to ensure the proper rent was paid to the landlord, Whitney became aggressive.

One Niagara manager, Chitra Selvaraj, 33, a graduate of Rashtreeya Vidyalaya Dental College in Bangalore, India, was then assigned to regularly monitor Whitney's conduct. Whitney and Dr. Selvaraj often engaged in a vigorous war of words. Frankly, Dr. Selvaraj gave as much as she took. Witnesses were amazed that the towering 6-foot-5 Whitney was unable to intimidate the 5-foot-tall Dr. Selvaraj.

One day, on June 20, 2007, around noon, Dr. Selvaraj was in the lobby near Whitney's tour booth. Whitney was talking to potential tour customers, and Dr. Selvaraj also began talking to patrons.

Whitney ordered Dr Selvaraj to stop talking to "his customers."

She refused.

According to whom you believe, Whitney either struck her -- according to Dr. Selvaraj -- or according to Whitney only pulled her hat down over her head to prevent her from talking.

There were about two dozen witnesses. All of them reported that Whitney moved suddenly and placed his hands over the top of Dr. Selvaraj's head. All agreed he was successful in stopping her from talking.

The shocked patrons did not buy a tour from Whitney.

Police were called.

According to the police report (Incident No. 07-27760), "Victim (Dr. Selvaraj) and suspect Richard Whitney exchanged words in a brief argument. Suspect had told victim ... to leave (his presence). Victim was still in area. Suspect reached over the counter and hit victim on top of head causing victim head neck pain."

Whitney claimed to this writer sometime after the event that he did not strike Dr. Selvaraj, but felt her comments to patrons were so unfair that he silenced her by "pulling her hat down over her head."

This proves that some actions in life that appear malicious are not always based on malice but on stupidity.

One Niagara Human Resources Director Debora Matte said that it is the policy of management to talk to patrons "to assure they are getting the best possible customer service, and regardless of what Dr. Selvaraj may have said to patrons that Mr. Whitney objected to, he had no right to physically accost her."

Whitney was arrested for third-degree assault by Niagara Falls police and led away in handcuffs. After spending time in the Niagara Falls jail, Whitney was arraigned and released by Judge Anthony Morinello, who issued a protective order restraining Whitney from coming within 500 feet of Dr. Selvaraj.

Dr. Selvaraj chose not to pursue charges against Whitney. Over the Falls' lease was not renewed at One Niagara.

Whitney, now working as a parking lot attendant for Antonacci, works across the street from Dr. Selvaraj and has reportedly taken to taunting her and making vulgar gestures, according to eyewitnesses.

He reportedly told Dr. Selvaraj that she better get married soon, "because your biological clock is running out," called her a "wicked witch," and most recently, while staring at her, spat on the ground from across the street.

Whitney's brand of stupidity is not easily found in nature. Like our bankrupt city, he must have worked very hard at it.

Stay tuned.



  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.