Niagara Gazette

November 4, 2012

Candidates sound off on NFR, Milstein

Staff reports
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The company has had a presence in downtown Niagara Falls since the late 1990s.

In the years since, Niagara Falls Redevelopment and its various affiliates have purchased more than 400 parcels downtown in an area originally outlined under a 1997 redevelopment agreement with the city. 

Today, NFR — a company owned by real estate developer and New York State Power Authority Chairman Howard Milstein — remains a prominent player in the downtown landscape. Some in the community have suggested the company should have done more with its holdings by now. 

Dozens of candidates — from those seeking city council seats to those running for higher elected offices — have been asked throughout the years for their thoughts on NFR and its future in Niagara Falls. 

This year, four candidates seeking to represent the city in the state Assembly and Senate were asked the same thing: If elected, what would you do to encourage one of the community's largest private land owners to develop its large tract of largely vacant property?

Two incumbents — 62nd District state Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, and 138th District Assemblyman John Ceretto — remain optimistic about NFR's plans moving forward. 

Ceretto said he met with NFR's Executive Vice President Roger Trevino shortly after his 2010 election and expects big things from the company in the future. He believes NFR will be able to do more once the issues surrounding the Seneca Nation's gaming revenue squabble with the state has been resolved. He also said he doesn't believe inaction on the company's land is bad for the community at this time because NFR is paying its taxes and maintaining its properties.

"When that's resolved, we'll see things move fast," Ceretto said, referring to the casino cash dispute. "All of the pieces are coming together. I believe this will be another asset to the Falls once it's moved on." 

Maziarz, R-Newfane, the incumbent who is seeking re-election in the state senate's 62nd District, believes part of the reason NFR hasn't done more to develop its tract of land in the city has to do with the leadership in the city itself, specifically the mayor's office. He said company officials have had at best a rocky relationship with current Mayor Paul Dyster as well as previous administrations. 

"NFR has not had a very good working relationship with previous three administrations in this city," Maziarz said. "I don't know. Some of the blame lies with them too."

Maziarz believes the issues surrounding development in Niagara Falls are larger than just one company, NFR included.

"I don't think it's about NFR," he said. "I think it's about making Niagara Falls a better place to do business." 

As for his approach in the future, if elected, Maziarz said he would continue to work with company officials as well as other developers to improve downtown. 

"When I'm representing the city of Niagara Falls I can tell you that I'm going to push the envelope, not just with NFR, but with other developers to do some things," he said. 

As has been pointed out by their challengers, both Ceretto and Maziarz have received campaign contributions from NFR, Milstein and others associated with the company. Maziarz's campaign committee has received support from NFR and its affiliates for several years. In 2012, New York State Board of Elections records show Maziarz received $11,750 from Niagara Falls Redevelopment, $5,000 from Edward Milstein, $3,500 from NFR associate Anthony Bergamo and $2,500 from Howard Milstein. Records show Ceretto's campaign received a $2,000 donation from Niagara Falls Redevelopment, $300 from NF Redevelopment and $200 from Trevino. 

Both Amy Hope Witryol, the endorsed Democrat and Working Families party candidate in this year's race for the state Senate's 62nd District, and Robert Restaino, another endorsed Democrat who is seeking to oust Ceretto in the new 145th Assembly District , noted that their campaigns are not supported by NFR or its affiliates. 

Witryol said, if elected, she would push for the city and state to work with the developer to help NFR come up with a plan for its land that will create value for both the firm and the community. If NFR has a plan to build something that will create long-term value, Witryol said the city and state need to do what they can to help the company realize its vision.

"Our job is to come up with a scenario of investment strategies that will accelerate that timetable and be more rewarding to them in the short term," Witryol said.

She also believes the company and its vast holdings should be incorporated into the city's comprehensive plan, a vision she says is shared by the Mayor Paul Dyster, the city council and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. 

She said, her opponent, Maziarz, opposed that plan and suggests he's been actively fighting against projects it already covers, including the Niagara Falls Intermodal Transportation Center and the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute. His attitude, she maintains, has deterred successful investment in the city itself. 

"There's one guy in the front of the boat paddling in the wrong direction, and that's been a big obstacle," Witryol said.

Witryol accused Maziarz of sitting back and waiting for others to come up with ideas while she said she would be more proactive in trying to get things done. 

"We've got to look at each stakeholder and what their objectives are and find a way to motivate them," Witryol said. "When have you ever heard my opponent talk about what he's done to motivate Niagara Falls Redevelopment?"

Restaino, the endorsed Democrat in the race for Ceretto's seat, which will become the 145th state Assembly as part of a statewide redistricting process next year, had similar thoughts about his opponent's approach to NFR. 

If elected, Restaino said he would have "face-to-face" conversations to discuss "concrete plans" with Trevino, arguing that while talking about plans being developed is wonderful, he won't be satisfied until he sees real action.

"I'll look him square in the eye and discuss what their concrete plans are for the massive amount of land they hold in Niagara Falls," Restaino said. "I'd be willing to work with NFR to move plans forward, but I'm not interested in the status quo, which the city has experienced for the last 14 years." 

City Editor Mark Scheer and reporters Justin Sondel and Timothy Chipp contributed to this report.