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Mayoral rivals in Niagara Falls differ over influence of Buffalo

NIAGARA FALLS – The cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls sit 20 miles apart, share the Niagara River waterfront and, to varying degrees, are experiencing rejuvenations.

In the Democratic mayoral primary in the Falls on Thursday, one candidate sees the two cities sharing a common future, with each helping the other.

The other candidate sees Buffalo as a place whose influence, at least until Niagara Falls straightens itself out, should not cross the Grand Island bridges.

Glenn A. Choolokian criticizes Mayor Paul A. Dyster for receiving the backing of “Buffalo interests,” saying the campaign contributions and support the incumbent is getting from Buffalo business and political figures and the influence that comes with it don’t belong in the Falls.

“Buffalo, in my opinion, is running Niagara Falls,” said Choolokian, a City Council member. “I’m a guy that believes in local, local, local; if it’s a local hire, if it’s local businesses. We should worry about the businesses here. …

“And that’s not saying Buffalo’s bad, either. Once everybody’s doing good here, definitely branch out to Western New York. It’s a known fact that Buffalo has a big, vested interest in Niagara Falls.”

He said the root of his concern stems from the “Build a Better Niagara Falls Fund,” a private fund sponsored by anonymous donors and administered by the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo to supplement salaries for top jobs in Niagara Falls City Hall and to pay for national searches and relocation expenses for new candidates when Dyster first became mayor in 2008.

Dyster, the two-term incumbent seeking another four years, has held roles in regional organizations such as the state Regional Economic Development Council and is on the panel looking at options for a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills.

He contends that his reputation in the region gives Niagara Falls a positive influence beyond the city’s borders.

“As a member of the Regional Economic Development Council, I’ve been one of the individuals who’ve helped to shape the vision for the economic revitalization not just of the City of Niagara Falls, but of our region as a whole,” Dyster said. “So certain of the major themes of the regional economic development plan, which then becomes the foundation for the Buffalo Billion, are things that I’ve been an advocate for for a long time.”

That translates, he said, into smart growth, downtowns using their waterfronts, and an emphasis on advanced manufacturing and renewable energy.

Choolokian’s complaints are grounded in his own problems, Dyster says.

“He has trouble raising money,” the mayor said.

In the most recent filing period, Dyster’s campaign reported to the state Board of Elections that he raised roughly $15,000 and had about $32,000 on hand.

Choolokian’s campaign reported bringing in about $1,100 and having about $5,600 on hand.

Dyster, 61, touts a variety of economic-development projects in the Falls today that weren’t there before he became mayor. That includes the removal of the former Wintergarden and the creation of the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, as well as recent development projects downtown, such as hotels and restaurants.

“I think I’ve accomplished a great deal over the course of the last 7½ years, but a great deal still remains to be done,” Dyster said at last week’s candidates forum.

Several economic-development projects remain “unfinished,” he added, including plans for the remaining two-thirds of the former Rainbow Centre mall, redevelopment downtown and projects on the north and south sections of the Robert Moses Parkway.

The incumbent said he has laid out “a coherent vision” for the Falls and the city no longer needs to “cajole developers” into getting interested in the city.

Choolokian, 48, a longtime United Steelworkers union steward, has been the loudest critic on the Council of Dyster’s plans and programs – from the new train station project, to the rollout of a new garbage and recycling program, to the mayor’s handling of the city’s share of casino revenue, to the rash of homes that lost water service over the last two winters because of frozen pipes.

The councilman said he has done plenty to help the Falls while in office, including Council passage of the city’s 2012 ban on hydraulic fracturing.

He sees current conditions in the city differently from Dyster. At last week’s candidates forum, he said he believes that Niagara Falls is at “an all-time low.”

Choolokian has said he opposes subsidizing any businesses and believes that government relies too much on incentives, citing the state’s StartUp NY program.

“You got businesses here 60, 70 years old … that had to close. They can’t get a nickel out of the state, but we’re advertising all these businesses to come in here,” he said.

The only time he would support incentives, he said, is when living-wage jobs are created on a “significant” scale, for instance if a major employer like General Motors or Yahoo wanted to come to town.

In June, auditors told city officials that the Falls had run a $7.6 million deficit last year, which also was the third time in four years the city spent more money than it took in.

Choolokian, who believes that the gap might be even larger, said part of a solution involves reorganization of departments, but not fewer workers.

“Do more with less; I don’t believe in that,” he said. “I think we have got to figure out how to get our staffing back up, where workers are safe, the taxpayers are getting services. Because that’s what it’s all about: We pay taxes to get services.”

Dyster’s budgets over the last two years have used more than $9 million in fund balance to achieve balance.

Asked about the future of city services in light of the tough financial situation, Dyster said he envisions a smaller but more highly trained city workforce and hopes the Council will eliminate vacant positions.

Choolokian served a one-year term on the Council in 2005 and is finishing up a four-year term he won in 2011.

Both candidates have union support – Dyster was endorsed by the Niagara County Building Trades Council, the Western New York Council of the Communications Workers of America and others.

Choolokian’s support includes Laborers Local 91, whose members passed nominating petitions for him and which has donated to his campaign.

Dyster has a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, where he majored in international relations and international law. He was director of a graduate program at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., running an international affairs program at the Pentagon for the university from 1989 to 1994.

Choolokian, who has worked at the city’s sewage-treatment plant since 1988, also operated two nightclubs on Main Street in the Falls in the 1990s known as Hustler’s and Skylines. He filed for bankruptcy in connection with his business in 1993. He said the bankruptcy was a “reorganization” that occurred after disagreements with a business associate.