THE MEANEST OF TIMES
It was the best of times -- for Albany.
It was an age of foolishness, an epoch of incredulity, a season of darkness – for Niagara Falls.
To most observers: an inexplicable mass of ruins. Tourists coming here, seeing a ruined city, gesticulate, what went wrong?
You would think Niagara Falls had all the advantage - the cataracts, the hydro- power, a famous name. It isn’t the people; if they are no better than those in other places or times, they are no worse.
It might be fame echoing from a distance, rumbling like falling waters, menacingly, through all this space of time: The name Paris, Stockholm or Peking, may not be better known; certainly more know the name Niagara Falls than know the name of its master, Albany; with the most celebrated natural landscape, synonymous with power, the most-heralded waterfalls in the world, it is a small town failing to live up to its too-big name.
But ghosts vanish as the wicket closed: in Niagara Falls, its residents ask, what went wrong? It was the worst of times for Niagara Falls.
Repression: the only lasting philosophy.
Some of them think they served this city well, that the fault lies in the people of the Falls, in their electing their own breed. Yes, you cannot control the mincing vanities and empty-headed giddiness of Albany politicians; you must not expect to do it. The reason, for good or evil, for the decline of Niagara Falls - is the effect of Albany on this city: Albany took its waterfalls - that 17 million visit every year, took its electrical power generated from the descent of roaring river. They took their jumbo airport – the region’s largest - clean stole it, and promised to run it, then closed it, thirty years ago. And, as if to ensure a winter of despair – even in summer, Albany gave, to gain a little revenue, a tiny foreign nation called Seneca - the keys to the hunting grounds – the pilfering from petty rascals their gaming dollars. If Albany gave Seneca instant wealth, and, surer than death, no taxes to pay – and keys to unlock kingdom’s gates, in doing so, Albany gave the people of Niagara Falls, the keys direct the other way. They were dedicated to the devil.
“Tell the Wind and Fire where to stop, but don't tell me," sayeth Albany to Niagara Falls.
THREE EXAMPLES OF ALBANY’S NIGHTLY CARE OF NIAGARA FALLS
A night to bring the dead out of their graves
1 Tickle, Tickle, Pickle, Pickle
The Seneca-Niagara (read Albany) Casino…
In 2002, Albany gave to the tiny, foreign nation, of approximately 7,300, the Seneca Nation of Indians, their own, brand new country in what was formerly a part of downtown Niagara Falls.
Gifted to build a casino, it was hoped it would attract tourists, be a catalyst for development, and generate revenue for Albany -- through collection of a percentage of slot machine revenues. There was also a provision to provide money for the “host community” which was believed at the time to mean the city of Niagara Falls.
None of it worked as promised -- except for Seneca and Albany.
Apart from property taxes on land and buildings lost to a foreign nation, the other costs associated with gambling were not discussed. When casinos open, pathological gambling goes up; bankruptcies go up; crime goes up, as it has in Niagara Falls. And for every job a casino creates, one (or more) local jobs are lost since people spend more on gambling and less at local businesses.
But Albany will take care of Niagara Falls, Albany promised.
The Seneca-Niagara Casino, housed in the city’s former convention center, opened December 31, 2002, immediately killing a destination-oriented convention business which brought millions of dollars from tourists to local businesses. Ironically, when the convention center became a foreign casino, it wasn’t frequented much by tourists anymore, but, mainly, by middle and low-income residents of Western NY. This type of operation, where a casino “wins” from a large number of low-level, local gamblers, $50-100 each, is known as “the grind.” Seneca “ground” from 11,000 average daily visitors about one million dollars per day.
But Seneca has also the right to open non-gaming businesses without paying taxes -- even if it competes with tax-paying businesses in Niagara Falls. Seneca opened a buffet, a pub, a “high- end” steak house, an Italian restaurant, an Asian restaurant, coffee shops, a glamour spa, all kinds of gift and merchandise stores, and a 26 story hotel – all of which compete directly with local businesses.
Meanwhile, two local hotels were foreclosed, a third hotel closed. Stores have closed. Restaurants closed. People opt to dine at glamorous Seneca restaurants where tax- free food gets them more for less.
More stores are coming, and the new Seneca-Niagara Hotel, the largest hotel in the area, with deluxe rooms and pillow-top beds, ought to impact this season: Local hotels would have pillow-top beds, too, if they paid no property tax, sales tax, income or bed tax. On slow nights, with 604 rooms, Seneca can offer tax-free, luxury rooms at the same price that mid-quality, tax-paying US hotels can offer.
A smoke shop is anticipated: After beating locals at slots, Seneca can offer odds for lung cancer -- tax-free.
True, Seneca generated $100 million in revenue for Albany, and $72 million was paid in local payroll during 2004 – most of which was paid at near minimum wages. Meantime, $300 million in gambling losses came out of locals’ pockets, who, sometimes, gambled with more than entertainment money. Seneca holds almost a hundred mortgages on customer’s homes. Lost property tax on (former USA) now Seneca land, lost convention business and lost business from unfair competition adds up to untold millions.
2. POWER TO THE POLITICIANS - OF ALBANY
50 years! (let’s try for 100) Gracious Creator of day! To have your local power stolen - for 100 years!
There is no cheap electrical power in Niagara Falls.
But this is where power is generated.
Search around the globe, and you won’t find another instance of a place where they generate billions of dollars worth of electricity and the local people don’t get cheap electricity.
Why doesn’t this add up?
Niagara Falls was once “The Power City;” it was the world’s first and greatest generator of hydro- electric energy. The Niagara generates more than $1/2 billion worth of electrical energy per year.
From 1895 to 1957 that power was controlled locally and, perhaps, not coincidentally, the region prospered.
In 1957, Albany took control of the hydro-power generated from the Niagara River through the New York Power Authority (NYPA).
Although NYPA was created to deliver “low - cost electricity” we pay among the highest rates in the USA.
Under Albany/NYPA control, the people here get neither low-cost power, nor even the use of electricity generated by the Niagara. NYPA sells Niagara hydro-electricity to New York City, and seven other states at low –cost while people here get high-cost electricity from National Grid (formerly Niagara Mohawk) which generates its electricity by burning coal and other methods.
A region has to benefit by its natural assets -- as it must compensate for natural disadvantages. For 50 years, we have not benefited from locally - generated hydro-electricity. But Tennessee, for instance, gets our Niagara hydro-power, paying less for electricity than we do. Thanks, in part, to cheap electricity, Tennessee is booming. Meanwhile, we pay for our disadvantages: NY is colder than Tennessee and, consequently, we burn more natural gas to heat our homes. If we weren’t fools, we would know that to help compensate for high heating bills, we should have low-cost electricity. Instead, Tennessee gets our low-cost electricity, and, because it’s warmer there, also pays less for heat. Tennesseans call that a “two-for-one.”
Fortunately, the 50 year license granted to NYPA to control our Niagara hydro-power expires in 2007. NYPA wants to renew its license for another 50 years -- in exchange for a few million per year in cash – with no increases for inflation - and selling a comparatively minute amount of power (less then 1% of Niagara’s hydro – power) to certain municipalities at low cost. The ratio and the absurdity of what NYPA is offering is approximately: If I made $1000 per week by controlling one of your essential assets, and I paid you a dollar a week in compensation. Meanwhile, you had to rent a similar and essential asset for the high-cost of $50 per week – and you were too stupid (or apathetic) to realize you were being duped.
Contrary to what Albany/NYPA, and some local officials tell you, NYPA’s 50 year renewal is not a done deal. Based on the last 50 years, NYPA should be condemned – literally. Locally exercised “eminent domain” (or condemnation) of NYPA’s power plants for the public good might be the best, reasonable method to take our power back. For, after all, every region - like every person - has the right to prosper from their natural assets. Just ask the people in Tennessee.
3 The ghost that vanished when Albany managed the park
There is a great crowd coming one day into our lives - and Albany alone shall profit: this has been Albany’s management style of the Niagara Falls State park
All through the cold and restless interval of 120 years, they whispered in the ears of the people of Niagara Falls –taxes are not Albany’s remedy for all things.
It can manage profit centers- quite nicely -- for itself.
Ever since father Louis Hennepin wrote about the falls in the 17th century, it has been pictured in men’s imagination as a place of pilgrimage; Niagara Falls was the first tourist destination in the western world.
In 1886, following Frederic Law Olmsted’s plan, a 19th century Albany – one far different than today - created the first state park in the USA. A garden in which the fruits of life hung ripening, waters of hope that sparkled in everyone’s sight, and profit promised for all - -- the Niagara Falls State Park. A moment, and it was gone.
Gone for all, except Albany - which made it an enormous profit center, and deprived the city of the spin-off every other area known to the world enjoys from tourist- drawing natural landscapes.
The most visited state park in the nation- 300 visitors to every resident and here a ghost town of a city – all but dead and broke – and across the river, Niagara Falls, Ontario, is a boom town.
Albany did it, and, all the while, hypocritically chanting, “this is an Olmsted park” – while, simultaneously, violating every principle Olmsted had - which was to keep this park green.
It was Olmsted’s ideal to see the people come to it - through the city of Niagara Falls. Before and after their visit - they would spend money in the city.
Over time, under Albany’s management, tourists were routed down state-owned roads - away from the city – inside the park directly, a nature park which thrives on parking revenue, souvenirs, food, and attractions – sharing nothing with the city, leaving nothing for the city. Instead of sylvan splendor – an enormous parking lot appears.
The residents of the falls sometimes sat alone of an evening, outside the park, listening, until they have made the echoes out to be the echoes of all the footsteps that are coming by and by into their lives – millions of them, and none of which to profit them – only Albany.
Last year the footsteps were left by the feet of eight million.
Albany made sure it possessed them all.
When eight million people convene in a 100 days of summer, on less than 100 acres, naturally many of them need to eat and want to buy souvenirs. Should they leave the nature park to do that – and go into the city?
Why? asked Albany: There should be stores and restaurants here – and all for our profit keeping.
The biggest usurpation of land and revenue is the gigantic parking lots which paved over Olmsted’s vision. Their planning is brilliant: the routing of people along the Robert Moses Parkway so they see not the city; travelers travel down state- controlled roads to the state parking lot, paying $10 for the privilege, spend $8 for the cave of the winds, $12 for the maid of the mist, buy souvenirs at stores in the park, eat a meal at one of the restaurants in the park, then, without encouragement, indeed, without a single ad within the park for any activity in the city, tourists leave the park - oftentimes believing there is nothing else to do in Niagara Falls, at least on the American side; they either leave on the state-owned road out of town or cross the bridge to Canada.
It would be a far, far better thing for Albany if Niagara Falls NY were to prosper – but they do not see it; they never have seen it. In the end, it would mean more revenue, more sales tax, more opportunity for everyone – even Albany.
And it would be a far, far better thing if the people of Niagara Falls positioned all the fine gentlemen of Albany into comfortable barrels and threw them over the Horseshoe Falls; it would be a far, far better rest they go, for those selfsame Albany gentlemen than they have ever known before.
Out of simple kindness, Niagara Falls ought to do it.