Council meeting plunges into chaos as new member launches tirade on economic development

Jan. 19—A Niagara Falls City Council meeting Wednesday night devolved into a more than three-hour freestyle debate over the history of economic development in the city.

After a series of public hearings on the abandonment of several small parcels of city-owned alleyways and streets, and a hearing on the city's proposal to support a RESTORE NY grant for a brew pub development on Buffalo Avenue in LaSalle, Council Member Vincent Cauley, who was recently appointed to fill the unexpired term of former Council Member John Spanbauer, raised questions over the city's purchase of a new fire department ladder truck and other apparatus.

Cauley questioned the city's bidding process and the decision to purchase the equipment from vendors outside New York state. Mayor Robert Restaino explained that the number of vendors who could fill the city's equipment specifications were limited and that the bids were all competitively submitted.

The new council member, joined by Council Member Donta Myles, then questioned the hiring of a consultant to develop a Local Waterfront Revitalization Program, approved by a previous council in 2019. The project, expected to take 36 months to complete, is set to be funded by a more than $500,000 state grant.

"The study will examine all our waterfront areas, including creeks and streams," Restaino told the council members. "We'll identify possible projects and development ideas and local (residents) will drive the study. The community input will show what the people want for their waterfront."

However, Cauley objected to authorizing the consultant contract, saying it would duplicate other economic development studies, dating back to the 1990s, and should be put on hold pending an update to the city's most recent comprehensive use master plan. That plan was adopted in 2009.

Cauley then veered into a repetition of arguments made in a recent court filing by Niagara Falls Redevelopment (NFR), and its affiliates, challenging a decision by the city to possibly pursue an eminent domain action to take 12 acres of South End land for the proposed Centennial Park project. That land is current owned by NFR.

The council member also pressed Restaino on an NFR proposal for a massive data center on that same land and the firm's reported offer to donate land to the city for Centennial Park. The mayor pointed out that NFR does not own some of the property it was offering to donate, including a couple of historic churches.

Restaino also noted that the data center project was too large for the disputed 12 acres and that the city's recently amended Zoning Code does not permit high-energy use industries in the South End tourist district.

The council session then careened into a 90 minute discussion of almost every economic development project proposed in the city in recent memory. Council Member David Zajac, the council's new chair, allowed the discussion to continue even as some residents in attendance at the meeting shouted for the proceedings to "move on."

Cauley sought to table the consultant contract and land abandonments, with support from Myles. But Zajac, and Council Members Traci Bax and Kenny Tompkins pushed all those items through on votes of 3-2.