By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — A scheduled court appearance in an ongoing legal matter involving a long-shuttered North End community center did not happen as expected on Thursday.
Instead, attorneys representing both sides in a pending lawsuit, along with a lawyer from the New York State Attorney General's Office, met behind closed doors with a state supreme court justice in Niagara Falls to discuss a possible "road map" for future operations at the site.
In April, a pair of Falls residents claiming to have standing as members of the board for the facility's operator — the Niagara Community Center Association of Niagara Falls —filed a lawsuit seeking to dissolve the group amid concerns about its assets, including the Centre Avenue building where the center has been located for decades.
Thursday was to be the first court appearance on the matter, however, the plaintiffs' attorney, Robert Restaino, and the defendants' attorney, Steve Pigeon, instead gathered for a private conference with State Supreme Court Justice Frank Caruso. A third attorney, William Maldovan, represented the attorney general's office during the discussion. The attorney general's office, which oversees activities of nonprofits like the community center association in New York, was named as one of the defendants in the lawsuit and is expected to be an active party during talks moving forward, according to Restaino.
"They are in this now to see it through to completion," Restaino said.
The community center traces its roots back to 1928 where it once operated on Erie Avenue as recreational space serving mostly neighborhood youths. Operations moved to the Centre Avenue location in 1952. The nonprofit association in charge of the center's operation is run by a board comprised of city residents. Since the building's closure, several local pastors and residents have called upon current board members to either take steps to reopen the facility or step down so others could assume leadership roles.
The lawsuit filed in April by two individuals claiming to have standing as board members asked the court to dissolve the association. Members of the current board — six of which are named as defendants in the case — have consistently said that they are working on plans to reopen the facility, including efforts to raise funds needed to install new, more energy efficient heating and cooling systems.
Following Thursday's conference, both Restaino and Pigeon said the two sides, along with the attorney general's office, have agreed to attempt to work out their differences with the court's help. They said all parties agreed that the primary goal should remain on what's best for the long-term interests of the center itself.
Restaino said the first step in the process will be a court-sanctioned assessment of the actual building, which was closed to the public in 2008 and has since been condemned.
Restaino said Caruso will select the individual or company to perform the assessment and the results of which will be shared with all parties once it is complete. The assessment is intended to give all parties involved a sense of the condition of the site and what it might cost to reopen it, Restaino said.
In the meantime, Restaino and Pigeon said all parties will continue their dialogue. Restaino said the focus remains on establishing a ''blueprint" for how to improve the governance of the center in the future.
"The court is now directing the attorneys to make sure the by-laws are followed," Restaino said.
Both Restaino and Pigeon indicated that the process is expected take weeks, not months, adding that the court has set a July 9 return date to discuss their progress.