By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — The houses that still stand in the Sabre Park mobile home community will soon be replaced by retailers and parking lots.
The company that owns the adjacent Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls, Macerich Partnership L.P., purchased the park and is in the process of evicting residents to make way for a $71 million expansion. Many park residents are gone — the company incentivized an early exit offering to pay people who left by March 1 — but a handful of homeowners remain.
One such hold out is Judi Dinsmore who told the Gazette that she isn’t going anywhere before her lease runs out in the middle of November.
“This was supposed to be my forever home,” she explains.
When the Gazette spoke with Dinsmore in October, on the day that the company used a subsidiary to buy the park from itself at a tax lien auction, she seemed hopeful she might be able to stay in her home.
“We’ll stay right here and see what happens,” Judi said then. “Doors open and close all the time.”
But now Judi has accepted defeat. She realizes there is almost no hope that anything will happen between now and November that will allow her to keep her house. She is still seeking a new place that is suitable for her 22-year-old son, Michael Dinsmore, and herself.
While driving through the park to tally the remaining houses, a Gazette reporter came across a note taped to the inside of a window of a faded yellow mobile home with brown paint chipping off the window sills.
Scrawled on the computer paper in black marker was this ominous remark: “15 men on a dead man’s ship. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.”
Judi shares that sentiment — hopelessness.
“We know it’s a sinking ship and we know we have to get out,” she said.
A total of 43 houses are still standing in the park. Of those, only 11 appeared to have occupants, with many of the other 32 vacant houses in varying states of disrepair. Some are partially demolished. Some have broken windows and garbage, old mattresses and broken televisions cast about the exteriors. When the park was at full capacity there were about 280 occupied homes.
Leaving the home she bought five years ago will be especially hard for Judi and her son. Michael suffers from cerebral palsy and is bound to a wheelchair.
Judi and her ex-husband, Jeff Dinsmore, have put a great deal of time, money and energy into the house to make it accessible for their son. They have widened doors and built a large wooden ramp on the front of the house so that Michael can come and go when he wants and move about the house freely.
Jeff owns a contracting company and did much of the work himself.
And that’s on top of standard home improvements — new windows and floors, a new roof — that were required to make the house comfortable.
“All my money has been tied up in this house for the last five years,” Judi said. “I have close to $40,000 put into this thing, not counting the mortgage when I bought it.”
She has explored the option of moving the trailer to another park, but has been told that her home is too old and too large for that to be possible — a common issue. The only park she could find in Western New York that could accept her trailer is in Alden. That’s too far away for Michael, who has constant doctor’s appointments related to his health issues, Judi said.
In addition to suffering from cerebral palsy, Michael has had a kidney transplant and battled post-transplant lymphoma. His cancer is now in remission.
Judi said that all of Michael’s medical needs are close to the park.
“All his stuff is right here,” she said.
TAKING THE BUYOUT
The lengthy legal process that will ultimately lead to the park being replaced by the mall expansion spurred many rumors and various responses from residents. Some left early, fearful of being evicted over night. Some took the company’s buyout offer.
Robert Kehoe lived at Sabre Park for almost a decade. In October, he told the Gazette that he was not sure if he would take the buyout offer. A few weeks later, in what he has described as a hasty decision, he signed on the dotted line.
Kehoe, who now rents an apartment in Niagara Falls, said the $800 dollars he was paid to leave early did not come close to covering the expense of relocating.
“What a stupid mistake that was,” he said. “It was not worth it.”
As a term of the buyout offer Kehoe and other residents who took the deal also had their rent waived from November of last year through February.
Kehoe has said that he originally moved from the city to the town for the school district. His daughter is a special needs student and he wanted to provide her with a better education. Now she is back in the Falls school district and he fears that his daughter will not get the support that she needs to flourish.
“I had to move somewhere that I don’t want to be because I can’t afford it,” he said.
Kehoe said he feels that town and county elected officials are now rubbing salt in the wound by talking glowingly about the expansion and publicly supporting a tax abatement — estimated to be worth $7.8 million over the course of the 15- year agreement — from the town of Niagara Industrial Development Agency that the company has applied for on the project. The IDA is still assembling the deal and will vote on it after the results of an environmental review are submitted.
At a recent public hearing on the expansion project, officials from the county legislature, town board and school district all praised the expansion and the abatement, with some seeking adjustments on particular aspects of the agreement.
“That’s a smack in the face,” Kehoe said.
Looking back, Kehoe said, he wishes he had more time to make a decision. He believes he would have stuck it out with the Dinsmores.
“Desperate people do desperate things,” Kehoe said.
FINDING LITTLE HELP
Mall public relations representatives have maintained they will honor all leases in the past. They did not respond to a request for comment on the tax abatement by the time this story went to press.
Judi Dinsmore enlisted her ex-husband Jeff’s help when rumors started to fly after it was announced that the park owners were to the lose the property due to unpaid taxes. He contacted a number of organizations — University at Buffalo School of Law, the New York State Division of Homes and Community Renewal — seeking legal advice throughout the process.
Judi credits Jeff with helping to keep her and other residents of Sabre Park aware of their rights, even if in the end his efforts go to waste.
“He’s kept us afloat this long,” Judi said.
Jeff said that despite his efforts to organize tenants and assert their collective bargaining power, he could not convince people to fight the company as the residents fled one by one out of fear instilled by, first, rumors and then eviction notices. In the end, Jeff concedes, he and others who wanted to fight the eviction were no match for the huge company.
“If they want to throw you out, they can,” he said.
Like Kehoe, Jeff views the tax abatement that the IDA is considering to be an insult. Many of the people who had homes or invested in the park were hardworking taxpayers of the town of Niagara and Niagara County, he said.
“They’re going to build it anyway, tax break or no tax break,” Jeff said. “So now, they’re going to put the burden back on the people they evicted. They already took advantage of us once. Now they’re taking advantage of us on taxes because that extra money that they should be paying should be reducing our taxes.”
Jeff said in his efforts to help save the park he contacted state representatives — Assemblyman John Ceretto, R-Lewiston, and Senator George Maziarz, R-Newfane — to see what they could do.
Both Maziarz and Ceretto told Jeff they would be at a residents meeting held in August of 2010. Maziarz did not show up but called to apologize. Ceretto sent a staffer who promised to try to help. Jeff has not heard from either politician since. Now both politicians are on board with giving the mall a tax break on the expansion despite saying that they would help the residents, Jeff said.
“They were never going to help us anyways,” Jeff said.
When asked about the comments of residents of Sabre Park, Maziarz said Friday that he could not attend the residents’ meeting because he was in Albany and that he had tried to help them by putting them in touch with the state’s Division of Homes and Community Renewal.
He also noted the buyout offer, saying the mall owners tried to help residents relocate.
“The town and the mall owners did everything that they could ... to help them get alternative housing,” Maziarz said.
A Ceretto staffer sent a statement from the assemblyman in an email, noting the participation of an aid in the first tenants’ meeting and saying he did what he could to be helpful with “any insight on applicable state law.”
“The Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls is a destination for many people outside of the area and the sales tax revenue is a significant benefit to Niagara County and the local municipality,” Ceretto said in the statement. “We are talking about tax revenue from visitors; not residents — its [sic] new money for our region. I wish everyone involved and impacted nothing but the best.”
Sitting in her double-wide mobile home, Judi Dinsmore said it is a strange sensation to have everyone around her — elected officials, trades unions, fellow citizens — rooting for a project that will so drastically alter the life of her family.
She understands why so many are happy that the mall is expanding, with the additional construction jobs, retail jobs and sales tax revenue that it will bring to the region. But she can’t help but feel, with no solid plans set for November, as if she is on a sinking vessel lost at sea, waiting to be engulfed by the waters, she said.
“It’s nobody’s fault,” Judi said. “It’s just circumstance. We understand that.”