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North Tonawanda’s longtime ambassador becomes its mayor

NORTH TONAWANDA – Arthur G. Pappas stepped into the role of North Tonawanda mayor on Jan. 1, but his role as a city leader started decades ago.

Pappas, 70, was born in North Tonawanda and raised in North Tonawanda and the City of Tonawanda, attending high school in both cities.

A veteran teacher who had served on the North Tonawanda Board of Education and been involved in countless community organizations, he never expected to find himself occupying the mayor’s office.

Pappas was elected in November as an alderman-at-large, filling the seat left vacant by the sudden death of Robert J. Clark in September.

He had only been on the Council for a few weeks when his fellow Councilmen selected him to be mayor for the remainder of this year, completing the term of Robert J. Ortt, who was elected to the State Senate.

Pappas called his ascension to the top city spot a real whirlwind and a surprise.

“If you would have asked me a couple of months ago if I would be mayor of the city, I’d say no,” said Pappas. “I wasn’t even sure I was going to be running for alderman-at-large and that came about suddenly, due to the death of the previous alderman. All of sudden this came up with the mayor’s office. I thought, ‘Do I do this or don’t I?’ This was a major jump.”

He calls himself a typical resident with a lot of pride in his city. He also remembers the city in its heyday and has seen its decline and the new resurgence.

The new mayor sees the city as a hidden gem.

“We have many talented people in this community. We have writers. We have singers. We have musicians. We have people that enjoy plays and shows. Some of these people are known, not only locally, but nationally and even internationally. I just feel this needs to be brought out,” said Pappas. “When you look at overall quality-of-life issues, this is an important part of our city, that it seems to me, people are not aware of.”

He said he remembers a time when Oliver Street was filled with people – almost a city in itself.

“There was every kind of store. You didn’t have to leave Oliver Street. There was everything you could possibly want,” Pappas said. “Everything was very clean with mom-and-pop store owners who had a lot of pride. And yes I saw it go downhill and we have some areas that need a lot of work.”

He added, “Oliver Street will probably never be what it was, but it can be turned around as Webster Street has been turned around. It can be a place of pride once again.”

Grant money has already been obtained through the Lumber City Development Corp. to start making fixes to facades on the street.

“Once people start, others nearby start to take notice, and very often follow,” he said.

He praised the work of Ortt and said he wants to continue that progress.

“Change is hard,” he acknowledged. “To make changes, you have to do something, not just talk about it. A few years ago, there was just talk, everything was abstract, but now you can look around and you can actually see the things happening and you realize that you can have change.”

Pappas calls himself someone who likes to listen before he responds. He is also more likely to pull out a mechanical pencil to schedule a meeting in a pocket notebook, rather than in his iPhone, which he got just a few months ago

“I’m kind of informal,” he explained. “My doors are always open. I want to communicate with the people, if I am going to serve the people. I’m not sure if I will give them what they like, but I will always give them an answer.”

While Pappas is new to City Hall, he had been playing important roles in the city for years in other ways.

He served for 17 years on the North Tonawanda School Board and had been that board’s president for a decade. He also served for nine years as a trustee on the Niagara County Community College board and had been that board’s chairman for two terms. He has been a volunteer for the North Tonawanda Youth Board, a member of the United Way Board of Directors, the Tonawandas Chamber of Commerce economic development committee, the Erie-Niagara Sunrise Exchange Club, a commissioner of the North Tonawanda Housing Authority, a trustee of the Tonawandas Historical Society and is a volunteer for the Riviera Theatre.

Pappas’ background is in education. He is a retired Starpoint teacher and had taught fifth and sixth grade, as well as middle school English and social studies. He said he continued to substitute teach right up until the day he was appointed alderman in December.

“It was a very rewarding career,” said Pappas.

He has been a longtime host of the Niagara Falls High School student-produced public information program “Bridging the Tonawandas” and said he will continue to work with the media production class students as mayor.

Pappas has a special interest in Gateway Park after working very recently as the Gateway supervisor.

“I got a tremendous amount of feedback,” he said. “The Gateway Park is now, really a destination. It draws people from not only our own area, but from different cities along the canal and further, different states, and even different countries sometimes. I have been able to get their take on what they see and they really love it down there.”

He said Buffalo may be undergoing a revitalization, but people still love to come to North Tonawanda because it is smaller and quaint.

He said another of his goals is to bring out the arts in North Tonawanda, “since we have that beautiful, historic building, the Carnegie Art Center on Goundry Street, which received a grant last year. Renovations are taking place right now,” he said. “My goal is to make sure that city-owned building is used for cultural purposes – arts, music, shows.”

He said he hopes to get all the arts groups – the Carnegie Arts Center, the Riviera and the Herschell Carrousel Museum – to work together to promote each other. Although he has only been in office for a few weeks, Pappas already has had a meeting on the issue with the groups.

“I want them to support each other and help each other,” Pappas said.

He said it is important to look at things and see how they are interconnected in the city.

And while he wants the progress to continue, he doesn’t want to ignore other parts of the city, which are not Oliver Street or Webster Street or the waterfront.

“I want to look at the city as a whole,” he said. “For a small city like North Tonawanda, it’s very spread out and we have areas of the city which almost seem rural, some of those area still need attention. We have to work on the everyday problems like infrastructure and flooding here and there or sewer problems. It’s an old city and there’s a lot to take care of. We don’t want to ignore any part of the city. We also have to keep in mind our resources and our limited tax base.”

Being appointed mayor means Pappas will serve in an interim capacity and have to run for re-election in November. With just one month under his belt, does he know if he will be running?

“I haven’t given it a lot of thought yet, because I am still getting my feet wet and meeting people and getting a feel for the job, but, yes, it is in the back of my mind. I’m planning on doing a good job for the people. I hope they will be satisfied with it and if so, yes I will run for re-election,” Pappas said.

He and his wife of 43 years, Linda, also a former Starpoint teacher, have two grown children – Chris, who is a high school math teacher at Starpoint and Andy, a Niagara Falls police officer.

The Pappases plan to continue the Ortts’ tradition of hosting a Snowflake Ball for charity. The event will be held on Feb. 21 in the Knights of Columbus, 755 Erie Ave. All proceeds will benefit the Niagara Community Action Program. Tickets are $40 per person or $75 per couple. Sponsorships are $250. The evening will include hors d’oeuvres, cocktails and music – as well as a chance to shake the hand of the city’s new mayor.