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Falls wrestles with parking costs As expenses outpace revenues, some call for private operator

The city has spent millions of taxpayer dollars to operate the ailing Rainbow Parking Ramp and fallen short of expected revenues from its downtown surface lots.

As the city's Tourism Advisory Board recently discussed how to increase parking revenues this summer, City Administrator Bill Bradberry suggested the city should decide whether it wants to be in the parking business at all.

Several elected leaders have said that they want out.

"Let's stop trying to fool each other," Council Chairman Robert Anderson said. "We should be out of that business."

Mayor Vince Anello, Councilman Sam Fruscione and Anderson all said they favor privatizing operations at the Rainbow Ramp to get its enormous cost off the city's shoulders.

"When it comes to trying to keep track of employees at parking lots, the scheduling and all that goes with it, it's not something we're looking to continue to do," Anello said.

Parking issues include:

* $800,000 to supplement operations at the Rainbow Ramp last year. Another $675,000 has been budgeted for this year.

* Major repairs that could cost $2 million.

* An allocation of more than $600,000 from local casino revenue to pay for debt on the ramp and the surface lot at Third and Niagara streets. Debt payments on the ramp will drastically drop next year.

* Failure to reach the 2003 estimate of $2.2 million in revenue from city surface lots as a result of the opening of the Seneca Niagara Casino. Revenue came to $431,000, and general fund money had to be used to cover expenses.

Anderson said that money should be spent on projects taxpayers want to see.

"People [couldn't] care less about parking in Niagara Falls," he said. "They want their streets fixed; they want the trees fixed; they want the [electric lines] that are hanging down buried under the ground like in other cities."

Anello said he was looking for a solution.

"My philosophy is to get out of the parking business, but right now those properties are ours, and we have to maintain them," he said recently. "The alternative is to turn it to a private developer."

Anello said he would be willing to request for proposals as long as a private operator would be responsible for the remaining debt and any maintenance on the ramp.

A proposed zoning overhaul under consideration could mean more private parking operators downtown. If adopted, the change would remove the city's ban on private paid parking lots.

Anderson would not say whether he agreed with that proposal, but promised to listen to comments at public hearings to be held in coming months.

Anderson and Bradberry suggested that the city seek bids worldwide on the ramp.

If the city can't find a suitable operator, the ramp should be torn down, Anderson said.

The city spent $1 million in 2004 to demolish a similar city-owned ramp at Third and Niagara streets and replaced the deteriorated structure with a 420-space surface lot.

The city and USA Niagara Development Corp. are seeking private development for the space.

The ramp on Rainbow Boulevard, however, poses a more complex dilemma because it is attached to the Rainbow Centre Outlet Mall, a structure leased long term to Baltimore developer David Cordish.

The ramp was built in the 1980s to provide parking for the mall, which is now vacant except for one restaurant and a storage tenant.

Councilman Charles Walker said Sunday the city should not do anything with the ramp until it resolves the lease with Cordish.

"Before we talk about doing something with the ramp, we need to talk about doing something with the entire mall," Walker said. "Bringing in a second developer would really complicate things."

Walker said it's "obvious" that Cordish has not held up his end of the city lease because the mall is vacant.

The city's ramp, meanwhile, has attracted fewer drivers because most use nearby private or state surface lots, said John Caso, head of the city's Neighborhood Services Division.

To compete, the city will keep the prices at the ramp at $5 per day this summer, he said. It also is looking at the cost of painting peeling guardrails to make the ramp more attractive.

The city is also gearing up to open a surface lot behind the Conference Center Niagara Falls, and a Vancouver company has begun installing parking meters on some downtown streets.

The lot was built with more than $550,000 in state aid and casino revenue left over from the Third Street reconstruction. It will include individual kiosks where customers can pay with credit cards.

The meters will have digital cameras that photograph license plate numbers and issue fines if drivers do not pay within three minutes of parking. They are being installed for free on a six-month trial basis, and the city will receive all revenues, less the cost of credit card administration.

Bradberry said he understands why the city administration is supporting the parking meters, which many business owners oppose, even as it wants to get out of the parking business.

"When you live in a city that is as economically challenged as we are, any opportunity to make an honest buck is going to be taken," he said. "We have to do what we have to do."

e-mail: gfranklin@buffnews.com

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