In 2001, an unlikely project sprouted from the fallow streetscape of Niagara Falls.
That year, a group of dedicated preservationists, community organizers and arts supporters banded together to save the former Niagara Falls High School from demolition and transformed it into the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center.
The NACC, as it is now called by the more than 70 artists who have studios there and the thousands of diverse visitors it attracts every year, has been a shining symbol of resurgence and revival in a city notorious for its corruption and seemingly unassailable decline.
But now, because of what appears to be a petty political fight between three vindictive Niagara Falls City Council members and the city’s progressive Mayor Paul A. Dyster, the NACC is the victim of some of the same people who once fostered its creation. It began in early February, when the council voted to take back $30,000 of promised funding the NACC was counting on to pay its winter heating bills. That money, Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian and fellow members Sam Fruscione and Robert Anderson Jr. argued, was necessary to expand police patrols. But that argument, as Dyster and many residents have suggested, appears to be a sleight-of-hand meant to disguise council members’ animosity toward projects the mayor supports merely because he supports them.
The offending council members have described the arts center and the broad community services it provides in terms almost too ignorant to be believed. They’ve called it an “entitled” special interest group and suggested it is unable to justify its own existence, even though the city’s contribution accounts for less than 10 percent of its total budget. This is the sort medieval thinking former Erie County Executive Chris Collins tried to hawk before voters tossed him out of office and replaced him with the more pragmatic and less draconian Mark Poloncarz.
That’s exactly the argument that Oishei Foundation President Robert Gioia made on Tuesday, when he appeared before the council to offer $15,000 in support if the city could come up with the other half. Gioia, apparently unwelcome in Niagara Falls despite his foundation’s contribution of some $10 million to projects there since 2006, was unceremoniously rebuffed by the trio and sent packing back to Buffalo.
“They clearly were not listening, which is disappointing because the institution does provide great service to the community, as a poster child for utilizing an old facility,” Gioia said. “And many of the people that the county and the city have to serve have benefitted from that facility.”
Hundreds of NACC supporters attended council meetings and made all the old, incontrovertible arguments about why public investments in culture yield big returns. Many of them are true, and those who don’t buy them aren’t thinking hard enough.
They ought to, especially since they are beholden to an increasingly angry public they only claim to represent. It behooves Niagara Falls residents to remember that perhaps the most odious of those council members – Fruscione – is up for re-election in November.
According to NACC director Kathie Kudela , $5,000 has already poured in from concerned community members. And Gioia said that if the NACC, which is about to launch a long-planned fundraising campaign, can raise its own $15,000, the Oishei Foundation will chip in the other half.
“Clearly, they’re cutting into what we said was the cultural fabric of the community,” Gioia said of his plea to the council. “ ‘I’m urging you: Please don’t go down that path.’ It fell on deaf ears.”