NIAGARA FALLS – Since his election two years ago, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has visited all of the state’s large cities.
He also has made time for trips to smaller places such as Batavia, Plattsburgh and Utica, which he visited four times.
But in his nearly two years as the state’s chief executive, Cuomo has yet to set foot in Niagara Falls, one of the world’s most recognizable places and a popular landing spot for past governors.
Some observers say there are reasons for his absence.
Despite a number of state achievements, Niagara Falls remains a challenging place for the governor, they say, because of two thorny issues.
One is the state’s plans to expand non-Indian gambling, which set off a dispute with the Seneca Nation of Indians that has kept more than $58 million in slot machine revenue from the city’s coffers.
A week ago, Mayor Paul A. Dyster said he needed more time to create a “disaster budget” for the city, and the specter of layoffs looms large among the city’s 600-plus workers. Amid a full-blown fiscal crisis, many are calling for a loan from the state.
While some blame the Senecas for the dispute, many city residents believe that the state violated the terms of its Indian casino compact by placing “racinos” in Batavia and Hamburg, thereby forcing the Senecas to protect their interests by withholding the money.
For that, the residents point their fingers at the state.
“We have a lot of frustrated people in the neighborhood,” said Roger L. Spurback, president of the Niagara Falls Block Club Council. “They were starting to see good things happening, and now they’re seeing bad things, when your roads are going down and your houses can’t be demolished. No one is willing to stand up and take the blame, and that’s not leadership. If the governor comes here, I’ll tell him to his face.”
Spurback believes that Cuomo needs to come to the city and view the effect of the casino dispute with his own eyes.
“It’s easy to sit in your leather chair in Albany, 300 miles away, while the streets are being neglected because we don’t have money to repair them and the houses are deteriorating,” Spurback added. “I don’t think anybody understands that what they need to do is walk with me through the neighborhoods and let me show them.”
The anger at the governor is compounded by mounting concern over his ties to Howard P. Milstein, a Manhattan billionaire and major Cuomo donor who has failed to develop the 80 acres he owns in downtown Niagara Falls.
Citizens living around Milstein’s vacant land were outraged when Cuomo appointed him Thruway Authority chairman last year, staging a “mock ribbon-cutting” to bring attention to Milstein’s company, Niagara Falls Redevelopment.
Late last month, a community group mobilized during Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy’s visit to the new culinary school, handing out fliers with images of Cuomo and Milstein that read, “My buddy. My bank. My Boss. Cuomo has Milstein to consider before you!”
The group, Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope, has more plans in the coming weeks to call attention to Milstein, one of the governor’s key allies. The activists aren’t surprised that the governor has chosen to stay away from the Falls.
“I would expect that he would not want to encounter the citizens of Niagara Falls who are feeling as though Howard Milstein has failed to serve their interests,” said the Rev. M. Bruce McKay, a Buffalo pastor who heads a regional faith-based group.
“Given … the poverty and lack of development in the city, one would think this would be a priority place to visit for Gov. Cuomo,” said McKay, whose group has been active in the Falls.
Others point out that Niagara County voted against Cuomo by a more than 2-to-1 ratio two years ago. Erie County also voted against the governor, but that hasn’t kept him away from the Buffalo area.
Although the governor has made no official public appearances in Niagara Falls, few accuse him of ignoring the city’s needs. Cuomo’s supporters point to Nik Wallenda’s wire-walk across the falls, which brought an instant tourism boost to the struggling city and put it in a worldwide spotlight.
While Cuomo did not attend the event – some speculated that he would make an appearance – his signature was the first step in allowing the type of daredevil event that had long been banned by the state.
Cuomo has also supported USA Niagara Development Corp., a state agency that has started to turn around the city’s bleak development prospects with more than $75 million of downtown investment.
The governor kept the development agency and its staff – some of whom were holdovers from the administration of Gov. George E. Pataki – in place and also committed money toward its key project, Niagara County Community College’s $30 million Culinary Institute Niagara Falls.
He also has steered money from the state’s economic-development pot into other projects in the city and has pushed for the preservation of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.
“I think there is a real turnaround story to tell about what’s going on in downtown Niagara Falls, and I would be the first to tell you we couldn’t do it without the state’s help,” Dyster said. “I think he deserves credit for this, in part, and I think he should come and take credit for it.”
For some, the tangible state achievements make Cuomo’s absence all the more puzzling.
While Cuomo has sent Duffy to the Falls four times in the last year, the governor has yet to make the visit that many of his predecessors saw as an unmistakable photo opportunity in a world-famous destination.
Pataki made the revitalization of Niagara Falls one of his key priorities, creating USA Niagara and giving the city the Seneca casino it so desperately wanted.
Then-Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer came to the city to endorse Dyster and later to learn about its key projects and commit state funding. He wound up making one of his infamous telephone calls to an escort service before his meeting with the mayor.
And Spitzer’s successor as governor, David A. Paterson, came to the city more than once, even holding an impromptu question-and-answer session to hear the concerns of local residents.
Local leaders are glad to have the attention from Duffy, but they would “love to show the governor some of progress we’ve been making here and show the impact his policies have had here in Niagara Falls already,” Dyster said.
An aide to the governor stressed that Cuomo is committed to resolving the dispute between the Senecas and the state, which remains in arbitration, and Cuomo last week vowed to “protect the taxpayers and the local governments” in the casino dispute.
But the aide gave no indication whether the dispute is keeping Cuomo from Niagara Falls, and spokesman Joshua J. Vlasto did not return multiple calls seeking comment on the governor’s relationship with the city.