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Funding for economic development effort splits Council

City Council members generally agree that the city needs outside help to draw in more economic development. They just don't want to rely on unrealized casino funding for the effort.

Council members are considering Mayor Vince Anello's plan to hire an economic development consultant to handle languishing projects and encourage growth near the planned public safety complex building on North Main Street.

However, most members said they are uncomfortable with the prospect of using the entire Niagara Falls Urban Renewal Agency's bank account -- currently $126,104 -- to pay for such a position -- likely for a short period of time.

"It's hard for us to decide because casino funding [is key]," said Councilman Chris A. Robins. "Maybe something down the road, but right now I'd like to see the funding in place."

The city received seven responses from a "request for expression of interest" it sent out in January seeking a consultant, and Anello recently told the Council he is hoping the URA will get a boost of more than $1 million in casino funds.

That may only happen if Gov. George E. Pataki signs a plan from Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte and State Sen. George D. Maziarz on how to divide the Seneca Niagara Casino 2004 and 2005 local slots revenues.

However, Pataki's proposed 2006 state budget schedules the money to go to USA Niagara Development Corp. to be disbursed, which would likely mean no casino funds for the URA or courthouse project.

"We all know we need someone, but we just laid off some people through the 2006 budget," said Councilman Lewis Rotella. "Why not use resources we have right now?"

Council Chairman Charles Walker, who appears to be the only member who backs the administration's effort, sent a memo to the other four Council members last week to remind them of the various projects that were started last year by the city's former economic development consultant. Donald R. Zuchelli of the Annapolis, Md., firm ZHA Inc. was paid $105,536 and had worked on improving signs, attracting a large theme restaurant, a parking ramp and retail to downtown for about a year when the Council rejected a contract in June for an additional $112,000 to continue his work.

Anello said that the city's planned $37 million courthouse project wouldn't have gotten as far as it did last year without Zuchelli and that the process has been hurt this year because he hasn't been replaced.

"If a majority of the Council is not supportive, we have to start the process very quickly with people we have on staff," Walker said. "The mayor really has to attack these projects, and it would be beneficial to bring someone to the city who really does that as a professional."

Anello said he doesn't care that the casino funding is not in place, because he needs help now and city employees don't have the required expertise. He said if the city uses $100,000 from the URA for a short-term consultant, it would be better than nothing at all.

"We need to get started. We can't take this big step on Main Street and not be prepared for other development that might come to Main Street," he said. "When are we going to take the first step? We shouldn't say we don't spend it because we don't have more, even if we can only stretch it out for nine months."

e-mail: gnorheim@buffnews.com

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