By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — Brian Higgins isn't afraid to be, as he puts it, "audacious" at times.
Back in 2005, the Democratic Congressman from South Buffalo was audacious enough to publicly demand more return from the New York Power Authority in exchange for the community's support for renewal of a federal license needed to continue operations at the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston.
His stance has been credited with ultimately helping convince the authority to turn over $279 million in Buffalo, money that is currently being used to reshape the city's waterfront.
Today, Higgins is looking to do in Niagara Falls what he did for his hometown: Convince the authority to dip into its considerable reserves to help finance $120 million worth of local improvements, including plans currently being considered to remove and reconfigure sections of the Robert Moses Parkway.
"I'm very excited about Niagara Falls," Higgins said during an interview with the Niagara Gazette's editorial board on Wednesday. "I view Niagara Falls very much the way I view Buffalo. It was a great urban city that lost a lot of its population, but I see a lot of potential here."
Higgins called on the authority to back local parkway removal efforts during his first formal press conference since having Niagara Falls added to his Congressional territory through a federal redistricting process. He stood outside in front of a section of the parkway near the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, using the Niagara Gorge as his backdrop. Higgins considers the parkway - both the southern and northern sections - to be barriers to the city's most precious resource - its waterfront.
While he said he'll support whatever parkway changes residents choose as part of an ongoing scoping process being led by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Higgins said it's clear that no matter what plans is selected, money will be needed to carry them out. Hence, the decision to call out the power authority, an entity that he says played a significant role in helping Robert Moses build the controversial roadway in the first place.
To Higgins, the concept is simple: The community needs money for infrastructure improvements and the power authority has it - lots of it.
"What we have tried to do is present this in terms everybody can understand," he said. "In doing so, we're owed a response. If I'm wrong, tell me I'm wrong."
Higgins said he is scheduled to meet with power authority officials to discuss his proposal on Monday. He'll enter the meeting armed with the authority's own revenue figures and projections, data that he says shows Niagara is generating a great deal, but not necessarily benefiting in full from the returns.
During his press conference earlier this month, Higgins noted that the Niagara project is the most productive facility within the authority's statewide system, generating more than $1 billion in the last six years to finance operations in other parts of New York. In addition, according to the authority's own figures, he said the plant contributed 76 percent of the $309 million surplus the system accumulated in 2008. Beyond that, Higgins said, excess water flows at Niagara generated nearly $40 million for the authority last year alone and estimates suggest those profits will continue to increase as the facility expands its generating capacity.
"It's the unique natural resources of Western New York that made that possible," Higgins said.
In the months ahead, Higgins said he intends to use the resources of his office to bring about change for the better in the Falls. He said he believes this side of the border can offer an attractive alternative to Niagara Falls, Ont. He'd like the city's business districts to offer what he likened to a Niagara-on-the-Lake appeal, where visitors find pleasant, natural surroundings and a variety of small businesses, shops and restaurants.
"My sense is you don't want to be Niagara Falls, Canada," Higgins said. "What you want to do is something that attracts the people that visit Niagara Falls, Canada each year."
While he acknowledged the turnaround won't be easy, he said he's been in talks with several regional developers in an effort to get them to take a second look at Niagara Falls - a city that, for various reasons, has developed an unfortunate reputation for choking off business. Higgins specifically referenced Rocco Termini, a developer who recently undertook an ambitious plan to renovate the Lafayette Hotel in Buffalo. Higgins said he'd like to help reshape the image of Niagara Falls the way he's helped with plans to reshape Buffalo's waterfront.
Much like Buffalo, Higgins said Niagara Falls suffers from having been beaten down for years and it has contributed to a sense among the residents that nothing is going to change. As is the case with the Buffalo waterfront, Higgins said it is up to the community's leaders to convince everyone that real change is possible.
"I can't guarantee outcome, but I can guarantee effort," he said.