NIAGARA FALLS - I don't blame the guy. Under normal circumstances, Paul Dyster is a reasonable fellow, the friendly neighbor who shovels everybody's sidewalk. When measured against the horde of political shiv-carriers in Niagara Falls, the mayor is a secular Mahatma Gandhi.
Yet even a guy who served a stint with the State Department has his limits. When Mr. Placid boils over, you know it is time to check the emergency exits.
Dyster went off the chain Tuesday at a 9/11 event. The hoopster-tall mayor of this stumbling border city threatened to stop sending fire trucks to douse blazes at the Seneca Niagara Casino. This is what happens when a man gets tired of being the collateral damage in a high-stakes game of chicken between the Senecas and Albany. With his back to the wall, Dyster played the only card he has.
"I'm ringing the alarm," Dyster told me Wednesday in his office, "because we're running out of time."
I sympathize. It is tough enough trying to connect the dots between survive and thrive without worrying about paying the bills. But that is where Dyster finds himself. The Senecas have, for more than two years, held back Albany's cut of its slot machine take. Which means Albany has not sent Niagara Falls its share. The city is owed about $60 million. That would hurt even a bigger burg. In Niagara Falls, with barely 50,000 people, it is like cutting off the oxygen of a patient on life support.
Throttle back the resurrection of the landmark Hotel Niagara. Delay plans to lure a Marriott or a Hilton. The city, without the casino revenue pipeline, can barely keep cops on the street, much less fashion a future.
"We were starting to turn the corner," the mayor said. "We need the [casino] funding to attract investment."
I blame both the state and the Senecas. The Senecas, not irrationally, think state-approved "racinos" violate their exclusivity rights. Gov. Andrew Cuomo does not like being stuck with a casino deal that George Pataki brokered. Reasonable people could have worked it out - and, indeed, it seemed last year like they had. Then the Senecas pulled back, reportedly insulted by a letter from a Cuomo aide.
The deal was off. Each side returned to its respective corner - and Dyster continued to get pummeled.
I am not a big fan of casino gambling. But Niagara Falls, to its credit, has used its share to build the bootstraps of recovery. Dyster has an urban-smart, eco-friendly, build-on-strengths blueprint. There is reason for hope - and I'm not talking about bringing back Nik Wallenda. But without the gambling money, the best-made plans do not get off of the drawing board.
It is painful, on a weekday afternoon, to see the nearly deserted downtown of a city with a natural wonder at its doorstep. Stray packs of tourists wander around, looking lost. If it were my call, I would lock Cuomo and Seneca President Robert Odawi Porter in a room at the Days Inn until a deal got done. I put the over/under at 24 hours.
The good news is that an arbitrator recently got involved. If nothing else, it brings both sides to the table.
For Dyster and the city he is trying to save, common sense cannot come soon enough.