By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — Mayor Paul Dyster delivered a message that he brought back from Washington, D.C. during his State of the City address.
Dyster, who visited the nation's capitol for the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Presidential Inauguration in January, said he was moved by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer's recounting of a determined President Abraham Lincoln vowing to finish the long overdue and underfunded Capitol building.
Two years after Lincoln's promise the building was complete.
Standing inside the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, a project that many in the community doubted could be accomplished, in front of a crowd of community members, business leaders and politicians, Dyster compared Niagara Falls to the half-finished Capitol building, saying that despite the many challenges the city faces he believes those who bet against the Falls will end up “on the wrong side of history.”
"Our work may be half-finished, but have faith that through your efforts we will prosper and prevail," Dyster said. "Never give up."
The mayor concentrated on a few key areas including public safety, community development and economic development his fifth annual address.
The mayor announced new public safety initiatives designed to build upon the success that law enforcement saw in 2012 including;
• A "top to bottom" review of school safety and the implementation of a new Emergency Management Plan.
• A renewed effort to make community policing the hallmark of the Niagara falls Police Department.
• A new outreach program called Help Eliminate Armed Thugs, or HEAT, that will include an educational component and gun buy-back days.
Dyster said that despite the bad publicity that came with a series of horrendous murders, crime in Niagara Falls fell in almost every major statistical category.
"Strength, resilience and fundamental goodness of the people," Dyster said. "Those are our secret weapons in the war against crime and with the continued support of the people of the city of Niagara Falls we're going to come out on top."
Dyster highlighted some of the projects that Community Development began in 2012 including the city's tuition reimbursement program Live NF and the city's partnership with the Isaiah 61 Project, a not-for-profit that buys city-owned properties, repairs them while training unemployed city residents and then sells the home to low-income families at a reasonable cost.
The mayor also announced several initiatives that the city will roll out in 2013 including:
• A crack down on vacant and blighted properties from the city's Department of Code Enforcement
• A plan that will financially punish land speculators who hold onto unoccupied, blighted buildings for long periods of time
• Plans to demolish 50 structures and to seek more funding to expand that number if possible
Dyster said the city needs to get buildings into the hands of people who are planning to use them.
"One way or another we are going to make it impossible for land speculators to hold down development in Niagara Falls by hanging on to multiple key development parcels year after year, decade after decade, with no regard for how that impedes the overall development of the city," Dyster said.
Dyster said downtown development, with a boost from Gov. Andrew Cuomo's "Buffalo Billion" plan to help cultivate the city's natural resources to attract tourists and major engineering projects that city residents never thought would happen — some in the planning stages and some already under way — will help drive the economy of the city for years to come.
Dyster highlighted some of the projects including;
• Downtown development projects like the Hammister Group's planned mix-use building, the Hotel Niagara project and the renovation of the Days Inn at the Falls.
• Road projects like the industrial stretch of Buffalo Avenue already under way, the state's revamping of the south end of the Robert Moses Parkway which is still in the planning phase and the Lewiston Road project scheduled to wrap up in 2013.
• Plans to use state money to emphasize outdoor activities with extended biking and hiking trails in the state park to enhance the experience of visitors.
Dyster said that the plans to enhance the outdoor aspects of the parks will draw more people — both locals and out-of-towners — to the city each year.
"When we were kids growing up along the gorge we used to say that state parks only had one rule for using the park, no having fun," Dyster said. "Consistent with keeping people safe and preserving the fantastic ecology of the gorge, we're going to repeal that rule and look at innovative ways to enhance ecotourism, active outdoor adventure and anything else that enhances people's experience of our great natural resource."
City Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian said the speech was “positive,” but he worries Dyster didn't convey the many fiscal problems that the city continues to struggle with in 2013.
"I want to stress that, again, the city council and council majority are going to be conservative in not blowing money," Choolokian said. "We're going to look at new initiatives to bring revenue in and we've got to work as a team with the mayor's office just to keep things moving forward."
Norma Higgs, the treasurer of the Niagara Falls Block Club Council, was thanked during the speech for the volunteer work the she and her block club members do for the city.
She said she appreciated the mention.
"We work very hard to do what we're supposed to do and we try to work hard to support everything and everybody in the city," she said.
Standing in the atrium of the culinary institute, Higgs said the building was proof of what can be accomplished in the city when people work together.
"I think (Dyster) showed us that what's been done can be improved upon, it can be multiplied many times," Higgs said. “I really truly am very optimistic.”