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Mural whitewash has Grand Island residents seeing red

Mural whitewash has Grand Island residents seeing red

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Nine years ago, Corey McGowan spearheaded the campaign to splash a mural highlighting moments from Grand Island history and notable island features across the back side of an aging shopping plaza.

Monday evening, as he drove past the Grand Island Plaza with his mother, McGowan was alarmed to see someone had covered up a section of the mural with stark white paint.

A trio of Grand Island High School alumni have teamed up for beautification and civic pride. In a project organized by Corey McGowan, the 250-foot wide by 14-foot high rear wall of the Grand Island Plaza will be awash in scenes reflecting Island history and sights. “This will dress up the plaza and add a lot of color to

"It was gut wrenching," McGowan said. "I had to do a double take."

McGowan isn't the only islander disturbed to learn owner Don Singh hired a contractor to repaint the plaza's exterior, a task that includes whitewashing the expansive mural along Baseline Road.

Critics say they don't understand why the Arizona-based Singh is concealing the structure's most attractive feature instead of making other, badly needed improvements. He welcomed the mural in 2012 and he allowed a group to clean graffiti from the mural this spring.

Grand Island Murals

The murals that are being painted over on the side of the shopping plaza off of Baseline Road on Grand Island, Tuesday, September 14, 2021.

"During this time when public art displays on sides of buildings throughout Buffalo and Western New York are becoming very popular and very cool, an out-of-town owner of a strip plaza on Grand Island paints over what was a beautiful rendering of the town," said Michael J. Billoni, founder of Billoni Associates and an active community member.

Singh, for his part, said he's planning to convert a portion of the plaza to storage space and he will need to carve out a set of loading bays from the mural wall. Since the mural will come down eventually, Singh said, he saw no reason to stay the executioner's brush.

"It's nothing personal against anybody," Singh said. "It was a business decision."

GI Pre Mural 3

The wall of the Grand Island Plaza facing Baseline Road, before the mural was painted in 2012.

In a coincidence, McGowan was driving with his mother on Baseline alongside the Grand Island Plaza in 2012 when she observed a mural of some kind could brighten up the drab, cinder-block wall, roughly 250 feet long and 14 feet high.

McGowan said he latched onto the idea and, with the help of numerous island volunteers and town officials, organized an effort to raise money for the project and found an artist, Terry Klaaren, to design and paint the mural.

It includes the island's signature bridges, Buckhorn Island, the colonial battleground of Burnt Ship Creek and statues of Charles DeGlopper, the Medal of Honor winner, and Charlotte Sidway, member of a prominent island family whose name graces the elementary school located across Baseline from the plaza mural. The mural also refers to Ararat, the "city of refuge" for the world's Jews proposed for the island 200 years ago but never built.

"Grand Island's got a lot of history," McGowan said.

McGowan said Singh was on board with the mural from the beginning and never had to spend any of his own money on the art project.

Grand Island Murals

The murals that are being painted over on the side of the shopping plaza off of Baseline Road on Grand Island, Tuesday, September 14, 2021. 

Over the years, McGowan estimates, the mural project has cost about $15,000, for the initial painting, upkeep and an effort this spring to clean off graffiti that had accumulated.

Singh has owned the 10.7-acre plaza property since 2005. Critics say he has neglected the plaza, allowing it to empty out and repaving the parking lot only in response to complaints about its condition.

"That plaza feels like a middle finger to the community, already," said Eric Fiebelkorn, president of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce.

The feeling is mutual for Singh, who blasted the island as an unfriendly place to do business where he can't make a profit.

"It's been nothing but a nightmare," Singh said. "It's a white elephant. It just keeps sucking money."

He would happily sell the property, but observers say his price is too high.

As he waits for the right offer, Singh said he's preparing to convert a section of the plaza to a warehouse or storage facility, a change that would require cutting out 10 truck bays along the mural wall.

Grand Island Supervisor John Whitney said he wished Singh had kept the mural intact while he went through the required approval process for his plans.

Singh said he had hired someone to paint the building exterior earlier this year and it made sense to do the entire job, including the back wall, at once. 

As of Tuesday morning, the teenage painter had covered the left side of the mural, about halfway up the wall, in white paint. Singh said he expects the work to be finished in the coming days.

News of the repainting drew numerous comments on a Facebook discussion page devoted to the town.

"This is awful," Grand Island Councilman Tom Digati said in one post. "So much time, effort and fundraised dollars went into this. That wall is the least of the problems with that plaza and it's incredibly unfortunate the owner thought so little of this."

Fiebelkorn said the Chamber has received about 50 messages about the mural, a level of interest he hasn't seen among members since the heated debate over the proposed Amazon warehouse in 2020.

Fiebelkorn and McGowan each talked to Singh by phone Monday and both came away unhappy with his stance.

Fiebelkorn said he recognizes Singh's rights as the property owner, but he asked what, if anything, the Chamber could do to change Singh's mind and save what remained of the mural. Singh wouldn't budge.

"It's a done deal," Fiebelkorn said.

For anyone upset over the mural cover-up, Singh said, "They can just buy the plaza. They can do whatever they want with it."

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