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Highland Avenue Fire House would stand as gateway for renewal

NIAGARA FALLS – The Isaiah 61 Project – a Niagara Falls nonprofit which receives local and state funding to rebuild rather than tear down vacant city houses – began in 2012 with much fanfare. But to date it has only sold one house.

Niagara Falls Community Development received a $132,000 Western New York Regional Economic Development Council grant at the end of 2013 for Isaiah 61 to rehab a city-owned fire hall at 3721 Highland Avenue. The building is to become the North End Trades Training Facility and the headquarters for Isaiah 61 and its building materials reuse storage facility.

But more than two years after the funding was announced, the project remains uncompleted.

City Council members met with Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo last month to get answers.

He told the Council that asbestos abatement had to be completed and a roof needed to be reconstructed, but it should be completed in four to five months. He said $168,872 has been spent on the project but it is well under a budget set at $500,000 at the start of the project. Funding beyond the $132,000 grant was provided by a federal Housing and Urban Development Block Grant of $50,000 and casino funding.

“This building was absolutely headed towards a government demolition,” he said. “That demolition would have cost over $100,000. It would be another vacant lot with no value.”

He said Isaiah 61 has sold one house, but rehabbed two and as a nonprofit, it pays taxes, thereby saving the city both demolition costs while putting the houses back on the tax rolls.

Piccirillo said renovating more houses is clearly the goal of the program, but having workers graduate and land jobs are the primary goals and the city is seeing a return on its investment in Isaiah 61.

He said the attention the program has received is precisely because it fills an unmet need –vocational training in the City of Niagara Falls.

He said when the city lost Trott Vocational School, it lost accessible training for transit-dependent residents. Instead of traveling on a bus for an hour to get to BOCES in Sanborn, Isaiah 61 partners with BOCES to provide students with a 500-hour training class that is also accessible to transit-dependent residents on Highland Avenue.

The city’s total investment in Isaiah 61 to date is $230,898 or just under $77,000 per year, which is less than the cost to demolish four houses. He contrasted the annual cost per pupil of $1,560 to the cost to the government when someone is unemployed. On average an eligible family of four will receive $1,443 in public assistance per month.

Isaiah 61 already has graduated 85 individuals and placed 45 in employment opportunities, he said.

He said restoring the Highland Avenue Fire Station is also important to the neighborhood at a corner that separates a stable residential neighborhood from one that is struggling.

“Nothing says ‘something is wrong here’ more than a dilapidated, vacant hall,” Piccirillo said.

He said the new North End Trades Training Facility in the old fire hall, combined with the state effort at the retention of Tulip Corp. and the Highland Technology Park, show that multiple levels of government that are investing in city’s North End.

The Isaiah 61 Project would echo Piccirillo.

Their mission and their name is taken from a passage in the Bible, “They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.”