2016 State of the City Address by Mayor Paul A. Dyster

City Council members, fellow public officials, department heads, community leaders, ladies and gentlemen:

Good evening and thank you for joining me for the 2016 State of the City Address.  As you’ll recall, the address had to be postponed twice in 2014 due to inclement weather, and DPW had to face a number of weather-related challenges to keep the speech on schedule in 2015.  I know the weather wasn’t perfect tonight, and I thank you all for coming out, but—hey—we’re showing improvement in the weather year-to-year for the State of the City.  So that’s our first accomplishment for 2016.

Our second accomplishment for 2016, I hope, will be to set a new standard of brevity for the State of the City speech.  I have heard in past years from people with wildly over-optimistic times for dinner reservations that the speech is too long.  Well, perhaps.  I myself have noticed that over time it has evolved into a rather encyclopedic listing of pretty much everything happening in the city in which the City government is at all involved.  That’s not much fun to write, and I suspect even less fun to listen to.

So I’m going to try a somewhat different approach tonight.  We’ve organized the speech around the concept of things you ought to, need to, and would want to know about what has happened in the last year, what is happening now, and what is about to happen this next year in the City of Niagara Falls. Hopefully, just the high points, but more than enough to let you understand the course we are charting for the City’s future.

One of the biggest concerns for any community is public safety, so let’s start there.  You may be concerned about reports of increases in violent crime from cities across the country.  You’re even more concerned about what’s happening here in New York, especially in our Upstate region, most of all right here in Niagara Falls.

You may know that the City is participating through New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services in something called the Gun Involved Violence Elimination initiative.  It involves 20 jurisdictions in 17 counties upstate and on Long Island.  Albany, Buffalo, Binghamton, Jamestown, Rochester, Schenectady, Troy, Utica and so forth—pretty much our peer group in law enforcement terms.  First thing you need to know is that the group as a whole had a decent year overall.  Violent crime down overall 2.8% from 2014 to 2015, firearm-related violent crime down 5.7%.  But things weren’t perfect.  Shooting incidents involving injury were up 5.0% for the group as a whole, and the number of shooting victims—i.e., people actually hit by gunfire—was up 6.9%

But look closely at the next chart.  Shooting incidents for the GIVE group as a whole went up 5.0%, from 814 to 855—41 additional incidents.  But look at the number for Niagara Falls.  We went down from 29 to 15 from 2014 to 2015.  That’s a reduction of 14—the largest reduction of any GIVE jurisdiction.

So let’s look at our City’s statistics next.  Our NFPD loves statistics.  You’ll remember we were an early adopter of Compstat system, and use a scientific approach to map trends, fight crime and deploy resources.

Well, it’s no wonder our Department loves statistics.  In every single category tracked by GIVE, we were down both against last year and against the five-year 2010 to 2014 average.  Violent crime down 5.4% 2014 to 2015, 8.4% versus the 5-year average.  Firearms-related violent crime, down 13.2% from ’14 to ’15, 2.5% vs. the 5-year average.  Shooting incidents involving injury, down 48.3% year-to-year and 34.2% vs. the 5-year.  Persons hit in shootings down 51.6% from ’14’ to’15 and 38% vs. the 5-year.

 How was this accomplished?  Here’s the GIVE model.  First, target the key people and groups who are the top offenders.  Second, target the key locations or “hot spots” where most of the violence occurs.  Third, align your efforts and coordinate with other violence-prevention partners, like the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office.  Fourth, engage the community at-large to ensure wide-ranging support

The new state-of-the-art Crime Analysis Center that I don’t want to talk about too much because we have a big press conference coming up about that in just a few days.

Our NFPD is a leader when it comes to state-of-the-art policing, and when the Chief and I were on a conference call for the roll-out of Final Report of the President’s Report on 21st Century Policing, we were happy to find we had already implemented 2/3s of the recommendations.

Our successful strategy is two-fold.  First, seek out, investigate and become an early adopter of new technologies that make the work of our officers safer, more effective and more efficient.  Second, work relentlessly to improve the relationship between the police force and community it serves, according to the principles of community policing.  That’s been the strategy of the NFPD. It’s working. And I’m very proud of our award-winning department.

The other partner in our Niagara Falls public safety team is the Niagara Falls Fire Department.  I know there’s a lot of tradition that goes with names, but it occurs to me that “Fire Department” is increasingly a misnomer for our NFFD.  Last year I reported that our NFFD made a record 6,537 runs in 2014.  Guess what?

They broke the record at 7,035 runs in 2015.  If you count each company apparatus involved in a multiple company response, the total is over 10,000.  What does this mean?

Well, they’re certainly good at fighting fires and teaching fire prevention—I’m proud to say that we had NO fire-related fatalities in 2015.  But the huge number of response runs highlights that the NFFD is about First Response to all types of incidents, not just fires.  When there is any sort of non-crime-related emergency out there, they’re usually the first on the scene.

 And whether they’re evacuating people from a burning building, prying someone from a crashed car with the jaws of life, attempting a rescue on a frozen lake, dealing with an opioid overdose or severe allergic reaction, or even rescuing a would-be jumper from the brink of the Falls, they have the training to do what needs to be done.

 They also have the equipment.  Parked outside tonight instead of in its’ fire hall is our new Rescue 1—a  combination Mobile Command Center and equipment storehouse for responding to all sorts of emergencies.  Boy, do I wish we’d had this baby for that big fire at Norampac in September 2014, huh Chief?  People are always talking about how we use casino funds.  We’ve used casino funds to  purchase public safety equipment and systematically renovate and upgrade our facilities.  A lot of improvements were made recently at the Royal Avenue and Ontario Avenue fire halls (still some work to do at Ontario this spring), and I believe that 10th Street is next on the Chief’s radar.  But Rescue 1 was also funded with casino dollars.

The NFFD is currently working with MIS and NFPD on apparatus computers and a dispatching project.  The computer system in Rescue 1 is the foundation for a system-wide project, where in 2016 we will be installing, in all of our fire apparatus, a laptop or IPad similar to those that the police are using in their new police cars (like the one you saw parked out front). Also, we will be updating our dispatch systems to be able to coordinate with this type of system.  Servers are installed and the system is in place… we are just working out all the details. Next we will be setting up the dispatch and purchasing the computers for the apparatus. This will finally allow us to have the necessary information we need while responding to a scene. The new computers will show hydrant locations, building preplans, directions, hazards of the building and much more.

We will continue to pursue all possible grant options available to assist in reducing the cost of training and equipment for the city and fire department, and the department is looking to add new sources of revenue in 2016.  The Chief is seeking to implement a program to bill insurance companies for emergency services for car accidents and heavy rescue.   Other departments in Western New York have already implemented these programs with great success.  The department is also looking at other opportunities to bill for services rendered at no charge to for-profit entities, in order to recover the cost of these services for the taxpayer.

The Chief is also working with the Corporation Counsel to finalize the process of putting out a bid for ambulance services for the City of Niagara Falls, so that the City would receive a fee for the right to provide those services. This will help keep the ambulance operator in the city more efficient and attendant to the needs of the fire department and the community, under threat of fines or other penalties.  I commend the Chief for investigating, tracking and bringing to the public’s attention recent community concerns about ambulance response times.  We recognize that there has been a change in ownership in our ambulance service provider.  We’ve met with the new management and we will continue to pursue this issue in 2016.

What do you need to know about the NFFD?  They provide a wide range of emergency response services, they’ve been very busy, they’re always on the lookout for ways to cut costs and access new sources of funding, and they’ve made very wise use of casino dollars to upgrade fire halls and purchase new equipment, to keep abreast of technology and serve you better.

Next I want to talk a bit about the Department of Public Works, and I thought I’d start with something that would bring a little cheer on this rather wintry night:  golf season will be here before you know it!

Really, no one should complaining about this winter, because I believe we set a record for the latest winter golf ever recorded at Hyde Park.  I think I heard that Santa Claus actually played a round of golf there just before settling down to his Christmas duties, is that true Director Caso?  In any case, I’m not a golfer, I’m a fisherman, but I’ve heard pretty much nothing but complements about the way our course has been maintained and improved in recent years.  And precisely because I am a fisherman, and because our administration is committed to improving recreational opportunities including fishing at Hyde Park Lake, I’m proud to report that we’re working to use more natural, environmentally-conscious chemicals and fertilizers there.

Our Clean Neighborhood/ZOOM Team had a busy year in 2015.  They responded to over 3,700 calls, got over 1100 properties to comply, and cleaned 548 themselves, leading to us being able to bill the owners for over $389,000.  Way to go.

Forestry, always working with fewer resources than we would like, is getting maximum bang for your buck.  We’re pursuing an aggressive tree removal program to get problem trees down before they fall on your house or car, or you for that matter!  But we’re also making sure to keep planting trees, so that the environmental benefits of a healthy green infrastructure are maintained for future generations.  I’m particularly proud that our city is taking the lead in investigating ways to deal with the Emerald Ash Borer infestation that is killing all our ash trees, including looking for new sources of funding to address the problem.

One of the great success stories of the last year is the dramatic increase in our recycling rate, and concomitant reduction in the amount of trash we have to pay to have landfilled.  Like any program that requires people to change their everyday habits—think about going on a diet or trying to quit smoking—the new way of doing things took some getting used to.  But we’re doing it.  Every pound we recycle instead of landfilling saves the environment, and saves us money.

Of course, the 2016 State of the City’s review of 2015 would not be complete without some reference to the media star of the year… you know him, you try to love him, he scares you a bit, but hey, we can’t live without him…  none-other than “the critter that crashed Twitter…”

TOTES McGOATS!   Totes got rolled out a little sooner than we had planned.  And, well, you know the rest of the story.  Who could have predicted that?  Now we’re back on track to use Totes and the educational video he was originally created to appear in, along with a variety of other educational materials from stickers to coloring books, to enlist our young people in the campaign to further increase recycling rates.

Finally, we can’t leave the subject of DPW without talking about paving.  We paved 34 streets in-house last year, and will have a vigorous paving program in 2016 as well.  10 streets got significant Zipper repair work last year, eliminating major concentrations of annoying potholes.  On the contract paving front, we were able, finally, to repave and reconstruct 27th Street from Pine south to Niagara Street—it was one of the worst streets in the City.  We have lined up two large contractor repaving projects for 2016, scarfing up some of the last of the funds remaining at our Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council prior to Congressional reauthorization of a transportation bill.

The first is the long-anticipated Buffalo Avenue Phase II, picking up where we left off at the Grand Island Bridge and running through the business district to Cayuga Drive.  We did Zipper repairs a few years back to tide us over, and now we’re ready to tackle the more extensive repaving project.  The second street, which likely won’t be bid out until late in the year, is Lockport Street, for which funds are finally becoming available after a wait of several years.  For my money, Lockport Street from Main to Seneca is currently the worst street in the City.  At long last, it will finally be addressed.  As we get closer to the start of these projects, we will have more information to pass to the public.

The takeaway from our discussion of DPW is that while we can always use more resources, having casino revenues has allowed us to expand our paving program to pave more streets sooner, and purchase garbage and recycling totes for our citizens and many of our businesses with no charge to them.

One of the City Departments that no one seems to know anything about is MIS— Management Information Services.  They did a bunch of arcane but important stuff in 2015 like implementing a new, city-wide digital phone system (with some help from Purchasing), installing fiber optics in all departments, upgrading our city cell phones, desktops and e-mail system and so forth.  Important stuff, but not things the average citizen is likely to take note of.  If our city departments were a football team, MIS would be the punter.  But MIS is finally getting its’ moment in the sun.  The punter is getting to throw a bomb downfield on fourth down.

After consideration of all the available alternatives, MIS is embarking on the long-awaited upgrade of the City’s website, and boy is it going to be a big improvement for not a whole lot of money.  For a little over $25,000, we’re getting a total revamp of our City web presence.  This will allow for better citizen service, and better tracking and workflow among city staff.  It will provide us with social media integration and an enhanced action line system to help citizens report problems and get them addressed more efficiently.  Perhaps most noticeable will be a fresh new look and feel for the City’s website. So kudos to MIS.

 And let’s give a little shout-out here to Purchasing Department.  If MIS is the punter, they’re the long snapper.  Under new leadership with experience in technology, law and management, Purchasing will increasingly focus on using technology and social media for its’ procurement and RFP process.  They’re working with MIS to upgrade telecommunications and lay the groundwork for computer and networking improvements.  Long story short, by the end of 2016 we will have completely transformed the backbone of the City’s computer architecture.

Code Enforcement had a busy year in 2015, issuing 1147 building permits—a sign of the economic recovery underway.  They conducted 8,690 building inspections and 2,095 housing complaints.  They wrote 215 new cases for Housing Court and made 104 court appearances.  Along the way, they generated $616,156 in revenues for the City.

Or landlord licensing system, also designed to help track vacant structures and vacant lots, now has 4,714 properties registered.  It generated $49,750 in license revenues in 2015, and anticipates about $100,000 in 2016.

The Assessor’s Office reports we added roughly $15m in assessed valuation to the assessment roll for 2015.  Military Road continues to grow with new commercial construction.

The LaSalle Center, a new 114,000 sqft retail plaza is complete and about 75% leased.  Tenants include Petco, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Shoe Carnival and several other retail outlets.  A McAlisters Deli is coming nearby soon, as well as a new MASH Urgent Care which will be completed this year.  This is on top of the recently-opened La Quinta Inn on Route 62, and several hotel and other developments downtown—more on that later.  All of this is good for our long-term tax base, but most of this development enjoys either IDA tax PILOTs or 485b tax abatements, so the impact to our bottom line takes several years to materialize in full.

Last fall, the Council approved homestead and non-homestead proportions that represented a 20% shift to try to attack the two-tier tax system.  The challenge in making the shift is the impact of IDA properties.  They make PILOT payments, but are considered non-taxable, so they take millions of dollars out of the non-homestead total.  Despite this, the City has tried to stay focused on shifting the percentages while avoiding tax increases for homestead and non-homestead owners whenever possible.  It hasn’t been easy.

We met a setback at our last Council meeting, but we remain committed to implementing a new parking system for the downtown tourist district, as we have since the winter of 2011-2012.  The system would employ solar-powered units with large color display screens in a geographically small area including two minor surface lots as well as on-street parking.

As our tourist visitation numbers increase, an on-street parking system is an obvious revenue generator and a way to regulate turnover in prime street spaces.  We will continue to work with Council in the hope a parking system can still be deployed in the 2016 tourist season. Having to deal with parking issues downtown?  It’s a good problem.

For years we have bemoaned the economic decline of our city.  Through hard work, strategic planning and investment we have begun to see the tide turn where for the first time in a generation–maybe two–we can begin to point to a brighter tomorrow.

In 2015, Tulip Molded Plastics, a company that had a 100-year history in Niagara Falls, committed to staying.  Let me assure you this was no small feat.  Economic Development in the 21st century is catamount to a blood sport.  States and municipalities are in constant competition to retain and attract jobs to build a tax base.  Businesses have options, and Tulip was no different.  They were being courted by locations in the Midwest, but with our partners including Governor Cuomo, Assemblyman John Cerretto (who once worked at Tulip) and the New York State Power Authority, we were able ensure they would be staying put in Niagara Falls–preserving 84 good jobs, with the potential for future expansion.  Tulip will be moving: but just a few feet versus hundreds of miles—to the cleaned-up site of the former Prestolite battery factory, where my grandfather once worked, right next door.  Their new state of the art manufacturing facility will break ground next month.

The story of Tulip’s new facility is a success not only in its’ job retention but also its’ brownfield reclamation.  Sites once deemed unusable are being put back on the tax rolls for productive use.  A couple of blocks north of Tulip is 3625 Highland Avenue, a site that was once home to Union Carbide.  Today, that property is being repurposed by the City’s Department of Economic Development and Urban Renewal Agency; plans are being executed to turn a vacant and neglected industrial space into a modern industrial park.

While heavy industry was our past, and plays an important role in our future, the water that flows over the mighty cataracts of Niagara will always hold an iconic image in the hearts and minds of all who encounter it.  And those who encounter its’ majestic power continue to flock to our city and build the growing tourism segment of our economy.

For years some looked longingly over the border at our sister city and lamented their growth.  What transpired across the river was not by accident; it was a coordinated effort by the private sector, municipal, provincial and federal governments.  Until recently those partnerships were not evident here.  That is no longer the case.

We have seen tremendous private sector investment in our tourism industry in recent years.  New hotels like the Courtyard by Marriott, Doubletree by Hilton, and Fairfield Inn will open this year.

The Holiday Inn added Tony Roma’s and the Great American Arcade, and the Sheraton at the Falls added the Rainforest Café and an arcade of their own in 2015.  The Wingate, which was aided by our N.F.C. Development Corp, also opened its doors to much fanfare.  The 310 Rainbow Boulevard project being undertaken by the Hamister Group—which we once thought might be the first of these many hotel projects out of the ground—is still working to secure financing.

While we are reasonably confident that the finances for the project will soon be secured, there should be no doubt that we have available contractual remedies to safeguard the city’s interests if the need arises.  We’re watching closely with the passing of each day as the spring construction season approaches.

Overall, we have a lot going on downtown with more in the pipeline.  We are not yet where we want to be, but we are moving in the right direction in creating a better downtown core for tourists and locals alike.

The largest project in the pipeline for downtown is at the site of the former Rainbow Mall.  As part of the Buffalo Billion initiative, and following an extensive bidding process, the Uniland Development team was selected to be the designated developer of the Wonderfalls public-private project.  Although various preparatory work was done there at the time of the Culinary Institute project, the Rainbow Mall site was not a traditional, vacant-lot, shovel-ready site.  It is an incredibly important project central to the redevelopment of Niagara Falls, and its long term sustainability is paramount to its redevelopment.  There is a significant amount of due diligence that is being completed now.  All this preliminary work is behind the scenes and until that preparatory work is finalized, the progress of the project won’t be visible at the site.  According to the developer, this includes everything from geotechnical analysis, structural studies, survey and title work, site analysis, environmental analysis, a hotel market study, etc.–all of these must be completed and accepted prior to shovels in the ground. The Uniland team is meeting with the State on a regular basis, and meeting with their creative consultants, programming a vibrant, synergistic environment that will be an international tourist destination, and a catalyst to further Niagara Falls investment. Economic Development in our city is not just large industrial projects like Greenpac or Tulip, nor is it just large downtown hotels and attractions.  Economic Development in the City of Niagara Falls has always been, and will continue to be, our small businesses.  Local businesses, whether they have been here for generations or are just opening their doors, are the backbone of the economy.

From 2010 to 2015 the N.F.C. Development Corp has assisted businesses of all shapes and sizes.  N.F.C. has invested $1.8 million dollars through grants and low interest loans to leverage $32.8 million dollars in development.  That investment has retained 92 jobs and created over 250.  In 2015 the N.F.C. Development Corp was active in every neighborhood of our city, whether it was assisting the LaSalle icon “Mom’s,” Pine Avenue staple Scipione’s, Hyde Park’s new Royal Cafe or downtown’s Third Street Retreat. While for some it may be hard to see the forest through the trees let me say today, that our economic fortunes are turning, jobs are being created, and the days of children saying good bye for greener pastures are ending. In some ways these are the best of times—at least recent times—in the local economy.  But none of this means anything to the many people who feel they are not sharing in the fruits of the economic resurgence ongoing in our city and region.  Luckily, political and community leaders in our region—and in your city—recognize that, and are prepared to take the initiative to respond. Last year, I used the occasion of the State of the City to address the issue of abuse of the In-Rem auction system of foreclosed properties by slumlords and out-of-town speculators.  I called it “a cancer spreading throughout our city,” and said we were “going into the oncology business.”  The issue hasn’t been completely eliminated, but we sure came a long way in one year.  So this year is a good time to announce a major initiative to address yet another problem that had been thought by some to be inevitable or immutable. A coalition of labor, community, and religious organizations commissioned the Partnership for the Public Good to produce a comprehensive study on employment inequality in the Buffalo-Niagara region. On January 22nd, the coalition released the study “Working Toward Equality: Employment and Race in Buffalo.”  Some of the study’s data are specific to Erie County or the City of Buffalo, but much is for the Buffalo-Niagara Region—of which we are a part—as a whole.  Regardless, the findings are so stark as to be irrefutable as a call to action for us here in Niagara Falls. Just a few quick examples. In Buffalo-Niagara, 37% of African Americans and Hispanics live below the poverty line, compared to 9% of whites. Median incomes are $25,000 for African Americans and $27,000 for Hispanics, compared to $55,000 for whites.

The 2010-2014 African American unemployment rate was 17.3% and the Hispanic rate 13.6%, compared to a white rate of 6.4%.  The unemployment rate for young African American workers (in their early twenties) was more than double that of their white counterparts.  People of color earn about 70 cents for every dollar earned by white people. Why is this the case?  There are many causes.  Discrimination is one, even if our society is getting more colorblind over time.  Responsibility to ensure diversity in the workforce is diffused; most private sector companies probably don’t regard it as part of their core mission.  Lingering segregation in residential housing (where Buffalo-Niagara is sixth highest in the nation) creates transportation problems in accessing jobs.   Inequalities in education and wealth make it harder for people of color to access quality jobs. Rising economic inequality—the trend we have all seen of the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and the middle class getting squeezed out in between–has hurt people of color the most. The decline in union membership and failure of the minimum wage to keep up have hurt people of color more.  The Great Recession only served to make all this worse, and many of the cuts in government spending made as austerity measures—e.g., cuts in the Federal Community Development Block Grant program— disproportionately impacted programs that were helping minorities to further their education, get training, and find jobs. These disparities are not just morally reprehensible.  They cost us money, since poverty and inequality are bad for business —according to one study by PolicyLink costing our regional GDP 7% –that’s over $3.5b—annually. It’s time for our region’s leaders to rise to the challenge.Labor, faith-based and community organizations are doing their part.  Mayor Brown has garnered broad support for his Opportunity Pledge to “set collective goals to aggressively reduce poverty and increase employment opportunities for all residents…”  The Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo has convened a Racial Equity Roundtable, chaired by Alphonso O’Neil-White and with strong representation from the Regional Economic Development Council on which I serve, to pursue the vision of “a shared future, where racial equity will create prosperity and opportunity for everyone in our region.” We already have a policy initiative underway that touches on a number of equity concerns, from access to health care, to neighborhood empowerment, to availability of healthy food, to quality of affordable housing.  Launched in 2009 as the Mayor’s Task Group for a Healthier Niagara Falls, the group took a holistic approach to health and well-being that quickly drew it into issues of neighborhood health, safety and livability.  In 2015, still going strong, it morphed into a Leadership Council with several work groups.  The Healthy Food Healthy People group is an example.

The key elements:  proactive vs. reactive approach; work at the grassroots level; and encouraging collaborations among multiple organizations.  We learned a lot working on the health and wellness issue; now we’re turning our sights to the issue of inequalities in hiring and employment opportunity. We have been working with the Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope (NOAH)—a strong partner from the faith-based community—to formulate a strategy, not just to meet minimum legal requirements for minority quotas on municipal or government-subsidized projects, but to make real and lasting progress in bringing unrepresented populations generally, but especially young, African-American males, into the workforce at this critical time when unemployment overall is relatively low.  NOAH in turn has been working with the Gamaliel Foundation and Voice Buffalo to give truly regional scope to the issue.  Recently, we have added strong new partners to our efforts as the construction trades—both laborers and building trades—have come to the table to listen and offer suggestions; they already have a strong track record advocating for local hiring and prevailing wage requirements in development projects.  We welcome their assistance in pursuing objectives of diversity and inclusiveness as well.  We agreed to invite other key partners—e.g., developers and construction contractors—to join in as our work touched on their respective areas of concern. What are our next steps?  First, we are going to formalize the structure of our organization.  Second, we are going to explicitly state our mission and goals.  Third, we are going to regularize our schedule of meetings and work program.  Fourth, we are going to increase our outreach efforts to bring these issues to the attention of the broader community. NOAH and Voice Buffalo jointly invited Tom Perez, U.S. Secretary of Labor, a staunch advocate of workforce inclusivity, and a Buffalo native, to come to our region for a public event March 8th.  That’s a great start on the outreach front, for sure. What sort of things are we working on?  One thing we’re looking at is targeted hiring policies, so that projects receiving public assistance make specials efforts to recruit workers from under-represented populations.  We’re looking at the possibility of direct entry programs, where individuals who have completed approved pre-training programs have a more direct pipeline into construction apprenticeship programs.  The City has already invested in the Isaiah 61 project, which provides basic soft skill training and general exposure to the construction industry through work to rehabilitate dilapidated structures for a diverse clientele that includes many people from our targeted groups.  We are in the process of converting an abandoned fire hall at the corner of Highland and College Avenues for use as a job training facility. But we know that for the graduates of such programs to gain entry to the construction trades, there needs to be strong coordination with potential future employers on what gets taught.  Moreover, basic qualifications—like graduating high school or obtaining a GED, being able to pass a drug test, having a driver’s license, showing up on time—have to be part of the bargain too.

Employers and unions need the community’s help with those things.  Many different entities have to come together for even one low-income, under-represented person to get hired—but we’re not going to be discouraged or deterred, because we know this is a road we have to travel. We also want to address problems new hires have with getting to work.  This could mean developing programs to identify workers who have problems getting to job sites and getting them community help to get their first car.  It also means trying to locate training programs and job-producing developments in areas that are easily accessible from the neighborhoods where people live.  This is why we located the new job training facility where we did, why we fought so hard to keep Tulip Corporation on Highland Avenue, why we want BOCES programs in our neighborhoods, and why we’re working on other projects to directly create green, sustainable jobs  in the places where the people who need them live. We’re also working to create quality affordable housing in neighborhoods near where people with modest incomes work.  When Hope VI ran into unanticipated environmental issues, we stepped in to save the project—one of our larger uses of casino revenues that many people have forgotten about.  Now, in partnership with Brightfields, we’re rehabilitating former brownfields to create the Highland Avenue Business Park as a place where neighborhood residents can work in walking distance of the housing at Hope VI. That’s why we’re so proud of our great partnership with Housing Visions, creating new housing in a once-declining neighborhood that is now attracting workers from NFMMC, the NACC, the casino and downtown hotels and restaurants.  That’s why we’re working with E.B. Emanuel’s Ben Upshaw to turn the former South Junior High School into Niagara Lofts—at over $22m the largest private sector development by an African-American developer in the history of the City of Niagara Falls. We want there to be more home-grown Ben Upshaw’s in the future.  So another facet of our effort is to help encourage the growth of Woman and Minority–Owned Business Enterprises capable of taking advantage of WMBE contracting requirements in government contracts.  We know that even when the entrepreneurial spirit is strong, many obstacles—from lack of networking, to unavailability of mentors, to difficulty of obtaining capital for equipment purchases, to building bonding capacity—work against minority and woman business people breaking through the glass ceiling.  So we’re going to find more ways to help.  Our Purchasing Department is tasked with looking at best local government practices that advance racial equity in government contracting and procurement. In the short term, we’re working with the Small Business Administration to, as SBA’s Victoria Reynolds put it, “fortify the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”  SCORE has been America’s premier small business counseling organization since 1964. Its’ mission is to help aspiring entrepreneurs achieve their business goals. The 50+ volunteers of Buffalo Niagara SCORE have many decades of real-world business experience to share as part of a national network of over 11,000.SCORE’s experienced business mentors provide general business advice on every aspect of business planning, start-up, management and growth.

For minority entrepreneurs without the experience of growing up in a business family, this can be crucial.  So we’re going to work with SBA to drive up the capacity of our local SCORE chapter to increase its’ outreach, especially to our minority community. We know that financing can be a major hurdle for WMBE businesses, so we’re going to work with SBA and NCCC to put on here in Niagara Falls an event that worked well in Rochester:  Lender Matchmaker.  Banks, credit unions and other potential lenders put up tables at the event, and businesses looking for financing get to talk to them all just by walking around the event.  Look for an event here in downtown Niagara Falls by mid-summer. Just as we know we have a responsibility to make certain that overall growth in the economy benefits all our citizens, we also recognize that neighborhood revitalization is as important as downtown redevelopment when it comes to the long-term economic health of a city.  That’s why we’re proud of projects like Niagara Lofts. Investments over the years by NFMMC and the NACC have created something of a Medical-Arts Corridor along 10th Street and Portage Road.  But the former South Junior High School sat vacant and deteriorating, threatening to end up as a costly $1.2m public-financed demolition.  Now a $20m+ project will create 61 residential units, 10 market rate and 51 at 60% of median area income, plus 23,000 sqft of available commercial space, made possible through $6.4m in tax credits and a $5m Restore NY grant. How was this possible?  We worked closely with our partners at Empire State Development from the beginning, and they stuck with the project through thick and thin.  We started meeting with the neighborhood back in June 2013, resulting in School District voters approving sale of the property by over a 5 to 1 margin in December 2013.  The lofts will be marketed to workers at the Seneca Niagara Casino, NFMMC and nearby businesses.  The building will be renovated to historic standards, the playground at the south end stays in operation, and the developer has even agreed to a Community Benefits Agreement that will help renovate houses in the surrounding neighborhood in cooperation with Neighborhood Housing Services.  If that’s not enough, this property, which currently generates zero taxes, will generate over $377,000 over the next 15 years.  The construction fence started going up this week.  How’s that for a success story?  Remember that the next time someone tells you that the City only cares about development in the downtown business district!

One of the things you need to know is that your city is committed to making sure that, as we move forward, no neighborhood is left behind. That’s why we’ve spent the last year working to perfect the model for our Home Ownership Auction program.  The Law Department provided lots of hard work and support, as they do for the city’s regular In-Rem auction, which resulted in the sale of 250 properties.  We’re changing the way tax-foreclosed properties are sold to give preference to prospective homeowners and reduce opportunities for abuse by speculators and slumlords. The next auction is set for April 14th at City Hall.  Are you in the market for your first home, or do you know someone who is?  Pass it on. We’ve continued our pressure on lending institutions to do the right thing, resulting in Wells Fargo giving the City property from its portfolio to offer to locals to rehabilitate, along with funds to help with the restoration.  And I’m proud to say our much-publicized efforts to get the vacant property at 560 College Avenue back on the market—a major concern of neighbors—will result in Fannie Mae auctioning the property on March 16th.  That’s a small but highly symbolic victory in the war against zombie properties we’ve been fighting with help from Attorney General Schneiderman and other allies for the last two years. At its’ last meeting, the City Council heard the news of the start of work on the Niagara Lofts project on Portage, approved the sale of some vacant lots and abandoned properties on 4th Street to Ellicott Development Company, and accepted several properties formerly belonging to Dr. Mehta as part of a settlement arranged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office that were once a nuisance to community but will now have new life as part of its revitalization. Then Sara Capen came to the mike to announce the Underground Railroad Interpretive Center at the new International Railway Station and Intermodal Transportation Center was slated to open this year, and the National Heritage Area was working with NYPA to operate a hop-on/hop-off trolley between downtown and points north to Fort Niagara. That’s a lot of good stuff for one Council meeting, and it’s not all about downtown. Meanwhile, the Robert Moses Parkway South removal project, paused for the winter, is set to resume March 15th, while planning continues for the Robert Moses Parkway North removal project—from Main to Findlay—to kick off in the fall of 2017. As RMP South has been transformational for downtown, RMP North is expected to create its’ own unique development dynamic for the City’s north end.

That’s certainly something to look forward to.  There are positive things happening in just about every neighborhood in Niagara Falls, and that’s the way it should be. For several years, I’ve spent much of my time in the State of the City convincing people that a transformation of our downtown was on the way.  It isn’t done yet, but with a lot of help from our friends at USA Niagara and the strong support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, you can’t drive around downtown without seeing changes underway all around.  So tonight I wanted to turn your attention to the great tasks still ahead—the still unfinished part of building a greater City of Niagara Falls in the future.  The rebirth of our City will not be complete until we lay plans to ensure that the economic opportunities now being created are equally open to all our citizens, regardless of color or economic status.  The rebirth of our City will not be complete until we ensure that the ripples of the downtown resurgence are felt in every nook and cranny of our diverse geography, from LaSalle to Deveaux and all points in between.  That’s the promise I make to you tonight: that as we move into a better future, no neighborhood will be forgotten or left behind; no group of our neighbors will be excluded or ignored.  The only true path to a better tomorrow is the one we all travel together.  Thank you for your attention tonight and God bless you, and God bless the City of Niagara Falls.


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