NIAGARA FALLS – About 120 Niagara County residents were fired up Sunday over the failure of redevelopment in Niagara Falls, threatened reductions in public transportation in Niagara County, and New York State’s minimum wage, and they made their feelings known during a gathering that was part community mobilization, part religious revival and part get-out-the-vote rally.
The theme of the two-hour “Fire of Faith” program, sponsored by the Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope, or NOAH, was to designed to a fire in the hearts and minds of people to rekindle the economy, religious congregations and democracy itself.
NOAH and VOICE-Buffalo are part of the Gamaliel Foundation’s three-year campaign to “move 1 million people nationwide into living-wage paying jobs by 2015.”
The foundation said a similar meeting was held Sunday in Buffalo, among more than 60 being held nationwide.
In the Falls, a lighted candle on the altar of Word of Life Ministries, a church on Hyde Park Boulevard, symbolized the theme.
“It’s time for a mighty, burning fire,” said church pastor, the Rev. Jesse Scott. “Niagara Falls has to come together in unity; we have to become party to strength together with hope and faith in unity. We are on fire, and we’re not going to back up. We’re working to bring about change for social justice.”
Many of his remarks and others were greeted with unrestrained cheers and standing ovations. The key issues:
• Howard P. Milstein, his Niagara Falls Redevelopment company and the need for responsible development.
• Public transportation.
• A desire to see a hike in the New York State minimum wage.
• Efforts to get out the vote during next month’s general election.
One of the speakers, Yvonne Taylor, said: “I’ve been insulted by Howard Milstein,” the New York City billionaire who is the sole owner of NFR, which controls about 150 acres in downtown Niagara Falls but has failed to develop it commercially or residentially.
“I’ve been insulted by the lack of development, the empty lots and the boarded-up houses,” Taylor said. “I want to see some development on East Falls Street. I don’t want to wait another 14 years for any meaningful development.
“Niagara Falls Redevelopment is just holding on to land and stifling redevelopment. NFR has taken control of our land, and we can’t even get a parking lot there for our church.”
NOAH issued a statement that said New Hope Baptist Church, in the heart of property controlled by NFR, was unable to expand because NFR “refused to sell the land, despite the fact that the church was ready, willing and able to redevelop this property and expand.” Nobody from the company was present to respond to the remarks or could be reached afterward.
NOAH also announced the creation of a new campaign, called the Art as Action Taskforce, to “bring attention to the lack of responsible economic redevelopment in the East Falls district of the city.”
Another speaker, T.J. Colangelo, said NOAH is “fighting for justice in public transportation,” citing planned reductions in bus service by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority across Niagara County.
Colangelo said the state’s subsidy for public transportation on the Niagara Frontier should be increased to match its contributions to transit authorities in other regions. He also said the NFTA board of commissioners should be enlarged to include at least one regular bus rider and one member of “the disabled community.”
Kelly Wilson, a minimum-wage worker in the hospitality industry, described the difficulties of living on the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. She and others urged elected officials and candidates to support an increase in the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour by Jan. 1.
Several officials or their representatives said they would support the increase. One of them, State Senate candidate Amy Hope Witryol, expanded on her remarks to add that she also supports “regulatory relief for small businesses.”
“State regulations make it difficult for small businesses to survive in New York State,” said Witryol, a Lewiston Democrat who is seeking to unseat State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, in the newly drawn 62nd District.
“Voting is our path to opportunity,” speaker Teresa Kilmer said of the get-out-the-vote campaign.
“NOAH is motivating people to vote. You voters are the spark to start the fire to rekindle our democracy.”