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City counsel questions housing authority funds Recommends Council stagger payments

The Niagara Falls Housing Authority came to City Hall on Monday to ask for $3 million in local casino revenue that was promised for a $72.6 million redevelopment of the Center Court housing complex.

The request from Executive Director Stephanie Cowart did not come as a surprise to the City Council because lawmakers agreed several years ago to set aside that amount for the development, which will mean 282 new subsidized homes in the North End and LaSalle.

The shock came when acting Corporation Counsel Damon A. DeCastro suggested that the money should not be given to the authority all at once, as Cowart requested, but spread out as the development progresses.

"If we just hand over the [money], we're in a bad position," he said, adding that he wants a new funding agreement in order to "protect the city."

Cynthia Bianco, chairwoman of the authority's board of commissioners, shot back, "This is for the city."

Council Chairman Charles Walker also countered DeCastro, saying that it was decided long ago that the money would be paid if the authority was awarded a $20 million federal Hope VI grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It received the grant this year on its fourth application. None of the Council members believes that a new funding agreement is needed, and the Council will likely seek to transfer the money as soon as possible.

However, the city currently has just $1 million for the authority, from 2005 slot machine revenues. Another $1 million for the project from 2004 revenues is being held by Empire State Development Corp., according to Mayor Vince Anello, and the last $1 million would come from the 2006 revenues, which have not been paid yet.

Cowart said several officials from the Buffalo and Washington HUD offices came to the Falls last week to tour the grounds and meet local officials. She said they also specifically asked when the city's casino allocation for the building project would be handed over.

"The HUD representative from Washington advised us to get these funds into an escrow account," Cowart said. "They want us to hold up our end of the agreement."

Linda L. Goodman, director of project development for Norstar Development USA, which will build and manage the new complex, said the firm has applied for a $4.1 million state grant and is working to fill in the rest of the funding gaps. She said if all goes well, financing could close by the end of 2007 at the earliest, and construction could then begin.

The Center Court complex is located on 18 acres bounded by 15th and 20th streets and Centre and Beech avenues. The 282 new homes, a mix of subsidized rental and owner-occupied dwellings, would be built over the next three years on an expanded Center Court complex, as well as a LaSalle location on 93rd and 95th streets.

Also on Monday, the Council unanimously approved an amendment to the city's codified ordinance that will allow five new rooftop billboards in the downtown commercial district and 10 stand-alone and rooftop billboards on buildings facing Niagara Falls Boulevard or Pine Avenue.

e-mail: gfranklin@buffnews.com

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