NIAGARA FALLS - A Catholic priest bought a building in the heart of Pine Avenue’s Little Italy and intends to open a not-for-profit restaurant to serve low-income people.
That has alarmed restaurant owners, the mayor, some county lawmakers and a Pine Avenue business group.
“I am all for soup kitchens, just not above my restaurant,” said Carmine Bianco, who already operates a restaurant in the building.
Bianco's restaurant, Carmine’s, is located on the ground floor of the building at 1701 Pine, while the Rev. Jacek P. Mazur would put his project on the second floor. Mazur also now owns the building.
“If this is the direction Father Mazur is heading in, then yes, I am against it,” he said. “This move is single-handedly putting my family and me out of business.”
Mayor Paul A. Dyster and other elected officials told Mazur, pastor of Divine Mercy and St. Mary of the Cataract churches, that they appreciate his motive, but they don’t believe his proposal is a good fit on that stretch of Pine.
Mazur bought the building for $135,000 Jan. 19, according to a filing at the Niagara County Clerk’s Office. Written on the deed is the notation that Mazur was “an agent for a not-for-profit charitable corporation to be formed, and (the purchase) is not intended for the benefit of (Rev. Mazur) individually.”
The sale made the priest the restaurant’s landlord. Bianco said Carmine’s has a lease through March 2018 that he believes remains in force.
Mazur did not respond to requests for interviews about his plans or the source of the funds, but he issued a brief statement Wednesday through the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo communications office.
“My plan is to open a not-for-profit restaurant on Pine Avenue which would serve low-cost meals to low-income people,” Mazur said. “I would also like to offer meals free of charge to military veterans to acknowledge their service to our country. This would be operated by volunteers only. I love this city and my only intention is to help the low-income community.”
Mazur disclosed his plan Dec. 1 in a letter to the Niagara Falls Code Enforcement Office.
The letter said, “It is expected we could serve meals for a free will offering to people who cannot afford a meal in many places. In stages, cooking classes will also provide a hand up. This project will be funded by a coalition of like-minded individuals who will personally volunteer their time in this ministry. It is not our desire to compete with local food enterprises, and most of those we serve are not currently consumers of such places. For the most part, they do not drive, which is why we selected a site accessible by public transportation.”
“In a city where too often our residents are in need of a helping hand, no one recognizes the need for such a facility more,” Dyster said in a statement. “However, it is this administration’s position that such a project at the proposed location is not conducive to the viability of the Pine Avenue business corridor, and the efforts already underway by the Pine Avenue Redevelopment Project.”
The diocese said it was not connected with the project.
“This is Father Mazur’s own initiative and we trust that he has only the best of intentions for the community in mind for this venture,” said diocesan spokesman George Richert.
The Pine Avenue Redevelopment Project’s 12-member board, primarily comprising local small business owners, released a letter to Mazur from restaurateur Michael Capizzi, the group’s president.
“Our board applauds you for wanting to assist the less fortunate with a ‘restaurant’ for those who may not otherwise afford to dine out,” Capizzi wrote. “There already is a full-running restaurant in that location and changing it would deter other diners who may shop at the other businesses in the area. A location on a less-traveled street would be more appropriate.”
Niagara County Legislators Dennis F. Virtuoso and Jason A. Zona sent the priest a similar letter.
Although nothing has happened yet on the priest’s project, the news is already keeping customers away, Bianco said.
"Although I have yet to talk to Father Mazur directly about his intentions, I was told by those involved in closing the deal that he wanted to put a soup kitchen above my restaurant," Bianco said in an email to The Buffalo News. "Unfortunately, this news spread like wildfire around the city and has already had a horrific impact on my business. Here we are, winner of the Taste of Niagara as best new restaurant, and I only land one table the past four days."