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City leaders faulted on Naval Park restaurant; Higgins calls delay in opening 'a failure'

Rep. Brian Higgins expressed anger and frustration Wednesday over the failure to get a restaurant open this summer at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park on the waterfront.

"There is no excuse for not having a restaurant facility in that building for this season. Next season is not good enough. It should have been done this season," said Higgins, D-Buffalo, a leading waterfront proponent.

The Buffalo News reported Wednesday that Jason Davidson, who owns the Waterline Cafe at Waterfront Village Center and co-owns Fables at the Central Library, was going to team up with Michael Shatzel, owner of Blue Monk, Cole's and Brennan's Bowery Bar & Restaurant, to open a restaurant by the July 1 target date in the Naval Park. Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. offered to spend $200,000 to get the building ready.

Mayor Byron W. Brown complained that the Naval Park, which leases the building from the city, failed to consult him first, and he put the brakes on the project before it could advance.

There have been significant advances at Erie Canal Harbor this summer, and the public has continually listed a quality dining experience as among its top priorities.

Higgins suggested that the inability to get the restaurant open was a failure of leadership.

"I don't care about the bureaucracy; I care about outcomes," he said. "There is no good reason why people of good will can't come to some kind of consensus about getting an operator in there who can offer something valuable to the public, and then figuring out all the other issues that need to be worked out later on."

"There has to be a will to do the right thing. It's just very disappointing, very, very disappointing," he added.

The mayor said the issue was one of dollars and cents.

He said the city was looking after the interests of taxpayers by trying to work out a formula for future revenues from the Naval Park, which pays no rent and has an annual utility bill that the city pays and that the mayor estimated at between "$140,000 and $200,000."

"What we asked for, essentially, is some sharing in net proceeds," Brown said. "That means when we get to a point in net profitability, the city believes that it should share in those profits. That's what we're asking for."

He added, "While I said in concept I love the restaurant idea and would like to see it happen, at the end of the day the tenant has to negotiate with the owner."

The mayor said the Naval Park had yet to respond in writing to a June 20 letter from the city.

Col. Patrick Cunningham, the Naval Park's executive director, said a response is forthcoming, but he added that the city was proposing to renegotiate the lease with terms unfavorable to the cash-strapped park.