Jim Szwedo is a Niagara Falls businessman and activist, who heads the Niagara Street Neighborhood Revitalization Organization. This article originally appeared in the Niagara Falls Reporter on February 3, 2023
Please do not mortgage our future for Centennial Park
When it comes to the dueling project proposals by the City and Niagara Falls Redevelopment, I believe we can have both.
If the City and NFR both give a little, negotiate, and come together for the good of Niagara Falls and its residents, we can have an events center, a new park, and a high tech data center, instead of one or the other.
For the past 20 years, I have been president of the nonprofit Niagara Street Neighborhood Revitalization Organization. Our members are volunteers and receive no compensation for their work.
I am a lifelong resident of the Niagara Falls.
Over the past 60 years, I have seen this city squander and toss aside every significant chance it had for development and change that would positively affect its citizens and taxpayers.
During this time, the only significant development that benefited residents was the Seneca Nation Project, which had to be negotiated by the State and approved by the Federal government.
Most importantly, past elected officials and department heads have worked for their self-benefit and advancement without consideration for average citizens and taxpayers.
This “my way or the highway” attitude has transformed Niagara Falls into what it is today: a city with a declining population and increasing poverty, unemployment, and crime rates. It’s a place that our children escape at the first opportunity.
I am worried we have headed down that road again. But, while we cannot change our past, we can learn from it and change our future.
I have grown old waiting for change to come to this city, but now we have elected a mayor actively working towards a change in months and years, not decades. But he shouldn’t ram through a project without thinking, advice, or cooperation. His approach to this project will burden Niagara Falls taxpayers with debt for generations.
With that being said, we have an incredible opportunity to change the quality of life of our citizens, both in the short and long term. Two massive projects proposed for our city, if developed, will positively affect our trajectory for generations.
High-tech Data Center
I want both projects to go through. And they can. But the only way they’ll get off the ground is by working together and being willing to negotiate and make sacrifices for our city’s greater good.
To better understand what the projects look like and how they need to change, let’s look at what’s being proposed by the City and Niagara Falls Redevelopment.
Mayor Restaino wants to take land from NFR, against their will, through eminent domain.
The land outlined in red is Parcel 0, the land both NFR and the Mayor want to use for their project.
The land outlined in yellow is Parcel 0
The Mayor wants to build a $150 million park and events center he calls Centennial Park. It would include an enclosed event facility, used year-round, housing between 6,000 and 8,000 seats, and an outdoor arena for 5,000 to 6,000 people. Mayor Restaino has also proposed to build a parking garage and line the area with vendors, green space, and park attractions for the citizens of Niagara Falls to enjoy.
However, let’s not sugarcoat the proposal: this is a tourism project. It may sound like an oasis, but it’s being built in an increasingly crowded hotel district. Tourists may be begging for somewhere else to eat and something else to do after their four-hour excursion to the State Park, and this will provide for them, but more is needed to provide for the people in our city.
And speaking of our local citizens, most don’t live in the downtown hotel district. So again, this project is tailored mainly to the people staying in the hotels there, and will not improve the citizen’s quality of life.
Now, tourism is a significant and vital industry in our city, and the revenue it generates could provide a more extensive tax base.
And I’m also not trying to say that our citizens won’t use the facilities. The main point I’m trying to make here is that the Mayor’s proposal is to generate additional revenue through tourism that we don’t get from the State Park, so we should call the project what it is, rather than trying to pass it off as a catch-all.
It is also important to remember that the Mayor’s $150 million project needs to be funded. It is unfunded at this point.
When you take land through eminent domain, you must pay for it at market value. Acquiring the land will cost tens of millions after a legal battle that could take years. The legal fees alone will be in the millions. And then you still have to build the thing. And then you have to maintain the park. Where is this money coming from?
For their part, Niagara Falls Redevelopment says they have partnered with Urbacon to place a data center at the site of this project, the Niagara Digital Campus. It is a $1.5 billion private investment—no public money and no burden on taxpayers.
It will bring in more than 5,000 construction jobs over the next 5 to 7 years, and more than 500 permanent jobs.
Niagara Falls Redevelopment has also promised to donate land for the Mayor’s Centennial Park Project, and will donate $250,000 per year for the next ten years for upkeep and maintenance in Centennial Park. That is for free.
On top of this, Urbacon and NFR will build a technology education center that will host community education and fund scholarship programs for local schools.
Five thousand construction jobs is a good start. Still, it can be better for our citizens by tying it to something like a mandatory apprenticeship program, which targets younger residents of our city, and provides them with an avenue for training in a skilled trade.
This will create an area-wide solution to poverty and minimum-wage jobs, providing the only opportunities for many of our citizens.
Five hundred permanent jobs within the city would be great, and most jobs will be on-site, not remote.
People need to maintain the systems and network to operate a data center. It will be a 24-7 facility that won’t just be maintenance workers and other jobs. Urbacon has done this in Toronto and Montreal, so we should check that out first before forging ahead.
But for something like this, we need better guarantees. They’ve proposed future scholarship opportunities, but it would be far more enticing if those were set in stone with the deal rather than hypothetical. The scholarships could be distributed to local students within the Niagara Falls City School District to educate our city youth better. This will create local representation for Urbacon and provide opportunities for our citizens to find future employment. It’s a neighbor-helping-neighbor type of public outreach, and it is always a good practice to reach out to the community.
As for the $250,000 per year for the next ten years, that is a no-brainer to me. It wouldn’t make sense to turn away that kind of money, given what it could do for the citizens of our city and the bottom line of our budget. It might be worthwhile to ask for more.
The result of all these changes to Niagara Falls Redevelopment’s proposal is that their good project for the city turns into a great project that creates a myriad of opportunities for the citizens of our city.
Now that we’ve seen both proposals, let’s revisit the fact that they both want to use the same parcel of land, despite how ambitious they are. So I propose my solution: split the Centennial Park Project into two parcels, with the park on free land donated by NFR and the events center on a separate parcel.
Build Centennial Park on land NFR has offered to donate.
A perfect site for the events center would be on the city-owned land on the corner of Third St. and Niagara. It is city land, so you already own it. It won’t take a private parcel off the city’s tax rolls and is right next to ample, underused parking garages. In addition, it is along the Third Street commercial corridor, which would benefit local hotels, restaurants, and bars.
Not having to acquire the land and not having to build a parking garage—these two things alone would save the city $35 – $40 million.
As for the Centennial Park portion of the project, if it is being built to the advantage of the citizens of the city, it would make more sense to move it closer to our population centers near Portage Road to allow it to be within walking distance of their homes. If we make these changes, it will cut both parcels in half, making it easier to find suitable land under the ownership of Niagara Falls Redevelopment for all these projects to coexist.
In closing, both of these projects promise to bring in great potential benefits for the citizens of Niagara Falls, but they both need to provide more specifics.
Let’s get Niagara Falls Redevelopment to foot the bill for the park and its maintenance and for educational programs.
Let’s tie both projects to strict requirements, guaranteed benefits, and feasible timelines that allow them to be completed in months and years rather than decades. Let’s enable Niagara Falls Redevelopment to fulfill the development promises they made years ago, and allow the Mayor and his administration to oversee our city and the future we leave for our children is moving in the right direction.
Remember, this is a matter of compromise, so no single party will get absolutely everything they want. But the citizens of Niagara Falls will get more of what they need to thrive, and that’s what’s most important here.
I don’t want them to grow old waiting.
Jim Szwedo is a Niagara Falls businessman and activist, who heads the Niagara Street Neighborhood Revitalization Organization.