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Niagara Initiative waiting to be powered Ex-Authority head pledged to help county, but two years later, nothing has happened

State Sen. George D. Maziarz wants power.

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster likes power, too, but he really wants money.

No, this article is not a personality profile of prominent politicians.

It's about whether the Niagara Initiative, the title given to the hoped-for giveaway from the New York Power Authority to Niagara County, ever will come to pass.

Richard M. Kessel, the just-resigned chairman and chief executive officer of the Power Authority, publicly pledged in 2009 that the authority would do something big for Niagara County, host community for the authority's most profitable installation, the Niagara Power Project.

County Legislature Chairman William L. Ross took Kessel at his word. He handed in a stack of requests totaling $250 million for county and municipal projects.

"Because he made those announcements publicly, I thought there was a good chance," Ross said.

But nothing has happened, and now Kessel is out of the picture, apparently forced out last month by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

"The Niagara Initiative is under review," was all Power Authority spokeswoman Connie Cullen had to offer on the topic last week.

Maziarz said John Dyson, a veteran state official, is expected to take over as Power Authority chairman.

Three weeks ago in his Lockport office, Maziarz met with Dyson and lobbied him for allocations of low-cost hydropower for the county and local communities -- especially allocations they can relay to businesses.

Acknowledging that Cuomo's decision on such matters is likely to be the one that really counts, Dyster said he'd like to see passage of a law that would force the Power Authority to earmark its profits from Niagara Project electricity sales for economic development in Western New York, especially in Niagara Falls and environs.

"If we could retain more of our wealth, we in Western New York could contribute more to the well-being of the state as a whole," Dyster said. Western New York could be "an engine pulling the state forward instead of an anchor holding it back."

In Dyster's view, Western New York simply doesn't have enough money and needs to get it from someone who has it, such as the Power Authority.

"We've not been successful in getting our best projects off the ground. The reason is almost always the same. It's not that it hasn't been shown these projects would have a positive impact. It's because we don't have the capital," Dyster said.

> Empowering Niagara

Maziarz is a big believer in the Empower Niagara program. The county used 1.3 megawatts of the electricity it was granted in the 2005 Niagara Power Project relicensing deal and used it to aid seven businesses, creating or retaining 670 jobs.

The county exhausted the program's power supply last fall, but it is trying to revive Empower Niagara by scrounging electricity from the county Water and Sewer districts.

Both districts' directors confirmed last week they have been told to plan on not having Niagara Project electricity when they prepare their 2012 budgets. That could give Empower Niagara another megawatt to hand out to the private sector.

Dyster, on the other hand, says he's still a big believer in building things as an economic catalyst -- especially the Niagara Experience Center, a grand visitor center and interactive museum which, along with related work in downtown Niagara Falls, could cost $80 million to $100 million.

He said he doesn't view the money versus power argument as an "either-or" situation.

"We always want to receive the maximum amount of power allocated to job-creating projects here in Western New York," Dyster said.

But he added, "Some bricks-and-mortar projects are very important as economic drivers."

The scramble for dollars for all sorts of construction projects has dominated the discussion for two years.

In January 2010, Maziarz, R-Newfane, convened a meeting for every municipality in the Wheatfield Community Center. He urged a united initiative in trying to shake benefits loose from the Power Authority.

But soon, local leaders such as Dyster, Lockport Mayor Michael W. Tucker and Lewiston Supervisor Steven L. Reiter began lobbying Kessel themselves instead of letting the county do it.

"Paul Dyster, a week later, held a press conference saying he wanted $120 million for the Niagara Experience Center, economic development in Niagara Falls," Maziarz said. "Reiter then contacted me and said if Niagara Falls was going on its own, he would, too."

Reiter did not return a call seeking comment, but Tucker said, "[Kessel] told me last year we'd have something in the fall [of 2010]. Here it is, almost the fall of the next year, and nothing."

> Fight for state funds

Meanwhile, Niagara County's direct approach seemed roadblocked, perhaps by hostility over the county's simultaneous lawsuit against the Power Authority, since dismissed, trying to overturn a $544 million authority donation to the state treasury in 2009.

All sides always denied the lawsuit was a problem, but at one point in 2010, Kessel came to Lockport and met with Tucker without so much as a phone call to Ross' office two blocks away. Ross heard about the meeting when The Buffalo News asked him to comment on it.

"This played into the Power Authority's hands," Maziarz said. "We, the governments in Niagara County, could have handled it a lot better."

Ross last week mailed a copy of his original submission of project requests to Gil Quiniones, the authority's chief operating officer, who will serve as acting president and CEO pending a search for a permanent successor to Kessel.

Ross said Cuomo's main initiative for state funding for economic development projects, a $200 million pot of money to be competed for by 10 regional economic councils, pales compared with the hoped-for Niagara Initiative.

"The Western New York contingent of the Economic Development Council could end up getting very little. We're competing against the big boys," Ross said.

The four regions whose councils submit the plans the Cuomo team likes best will split up 75 percent of the $200 million.

"The other six get what's left, based on their strategic plans," Ross said.

> Unity in each project

In Western New York, Niagara is harnessed with Erie, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties, so even if Western New York is one of the top four, by the time the cash is divided and subdivided, Ross thinks Niagara County may see little return.

"You see why it's worth $4 to send [the county's request to the Power Authority] in again?" Ross asked a reporter.

Dyster said that under Kessel, "The Power Authority had a preference for capital projects that would have economic development impact. There's a real issue at this point now about what the pathway is for getting a final decision on the Niagara Initiative."

Maziarz thinks the answer is the electricity itself, and that Dyster's concentration on the Niagara Experience Center and Ross' desire for funds for a new county highway garage are misplaced.

"It was more about building buildings that the taxpayers will eventually be responsible for," Maziarz said. "Is it going to be the Niagara Experience Center or a highway garage, or is it going to be hydropower that creates jobs? That's what's going to turn Western New York around: private-sector, living-wage jobs," Maziarz said.

"I think that's a change from where Sen. Maziarz was in terms of his advocacy before," Dyster said. "I'd like to see a situation where we're all advocating for each other's projects and interests instead of showing disunity in the region."

He said he thought the plan was supposed to be three-fold: for Niagara Falls, help with downtown development and a "green industrial component"; for the county, its stack of projects; and for Niagara University, aid for a new science and technology center.

"We've been making the argument for some time that there has to be some direct impact from that generation of power when the power is sold into the grid and profit is generated, for us here where the power is generated," Dyster said.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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