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Maid of the Mist lease awaits rent reduction as Ontario parks fall into decline

June 30, 2009

By Frank Parlato Jr.

Preserve our Parks (POP), the powerful citizens' activist group in Niagara Falls, Ont., is taking their case to the city council this week.

Their claim: Maid of the Mist owner, James Glynn, and the Niagara Parks Commission are hurting the famed Niagara Parks.

Because of the low rent Glynn pays and the crazed plan -- exposed by the Niagara Falls Reporter -- to reduce his rent, secretly negotiated last year, but awaiting Parliament approval, the Niagara Parks are being deprived of money for basic maintenance.

POP is distributing pictures to the council of the sorry shape the once pristine Niagara Parks are in since layoffs have reduced maintenance staff by more than a third.

Five hundred employees were laid off. One thousand full-time seasonal workers had their hours slashed by 6.25 per cent.

Besides layoffs the NPC has deferred maintenance, closed services, cut investment and even canceled minuscule expenditures, like the employee staff picnic.

NPC manages 4,200 acres of parkland, including museums, restaurants, golf courses, rides and other attractions.

Around the parks, lampposts rust, paint peels, debris is left for months, vacant buildings need repair or demolition, light fixtures are broken, roofs need repair, including even the famous Spanish aerocar entrance's roof, tree wells are overgrown with weeds, parking lot asphalt is worn and missing -- all this and more make the parks seem in places rather shabby.

(Click here for a larger image)

Essential services are also being slashed.

The NPC had to close the snack bars in Queenston Heights and Kings Bridge Park -- giving a bizarre and uninviting look to these tourist areas. They closed the store and the botanical house at the Floral Showhouse, choosing to purchase plants instead of growing them. They reduced the hours of operation at the Table Rock Complex. And the ground maintenance crew at the mammoth Legends Golf Course went from 60 to 15 workers.

So why does POP think the decline in the parks is somehow the fault of Maid of the Mist, James Glynn and the NPC, particularly its chairman, Jim Williams?

After all, the Ontario Minister of Tourism reported that USA visitation is off by 50 percent and NPC Chairman Williams warned that parks are facing severe economic times because of the worldwide economy.

Yet Williams -- a former federal government official, now in private consulting -- knew the NPC was faced with an operating deficit of more than $4 million. He knew he had to increase income or make cuts as the chief steward of these public lands.

He made the cuts, but astonishingly, instead of trying to increase income on the biggest lease the park has, he and Glynn secretly negotiated to reduce the Maid of the Mist rent by more than a $1 million per year.

The secretive Lewiston businessman has held the lucrative dock leases for the Maid of the Mist boats on both sides of the Niagara since 1971. Until the Reporter published the leases, the public never knew what rent they were getting on their own land.

By an archaic quirk of law, the NPC is allowed to operate in secrecy -- a patent recipe for corruption.

After the secret negotiations took place with Glynn, Williams led the part-time commissioners at the NPC to again secretly vote to lower lease payments, while ignoring other companies' willingness to pay more.

It is hard to fathom why, when faced with the layoff of workers whose task it is to maintain the parks, Williams would lead the NPC to reduce Glynn's payments from a flat 15 percent of sales to a sliding-scale lease that sees most of Glynn's rent -- if the new lease stands -- paid at 5.5 percent.

As the Reporter revealed, the billion-dollar Ripley Entertainment Company of Canada proposed to pay $2 million more per year than Glynn was paying before the reduction.

Had Ripley's been allowed to bid, the NPC would see a rent increase that would singlehandedly cover half the shortfall the entire park system is facing.

But, and this is curious, Williams refused to allow Ripley's to bid and, even kept Ripley's interest a secret from other commissioners.

Also, astonishingly, Williams failed to tell the part-time NPC commissioners that the new lease actually reduced Glynn's rent. Most commissioners never saw the lease or knew about competing offers when they voted.

Alcatraz Media of Atlanta, which represents boat tour companies that deliver boat tours at Alcatraz Island and the Statue of Liberty, also offered $96 million more over the 25-year life of the proposed new Glynn lease.

Alcatraz also was excluded from bidding and is suing the NPC in Ontario Superior Court.

Last month, hard-hit Niagara Parks employees marched en masse to the falls to protest the cutting of their wages.

Last year, Williams managed to cut Glynn's rent.

One cut helped millionaire Glynn. The other hurt poverty-threshold workers.

But Williams has other concerns. He chastised the Reporter for its relentless coverage, telling anyone who would listen that the NPC is "under siege."

But what else can you expect when you refuse to consider competing offers that would bring millions more per year, when the grass isn't being cut regularly, gardens aren't being tended properly, and lampposts are rusting for lack of resources in one of the most famous parks in the world?

Parliament needs to approve the rent-reduced lease. Glynn recently hired high-priced Toronto lobbyist Bob Lopinski -- a former aid to Premier Dalton McGuinty, who heads the Liberal party, which controls Parliament -- to help persuade Parliament that Glynn should get his rent reduced.

Glynn's monopoly generated, according to records, about $23 million last year for Glynn. If the proposed rent-reduced lease is approved, his rent will go down from the already under market $3.2 million to about $2.3 million in 2010.

Ripley's and Alcatraz have offered to pay upwards of $5 million.

With such evidence before us and the hurtful deprivation of park employees and the parks themselves, you have to wonder why the Glynn reduction is even still in question.



  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.