After winning third term, Dyster doubles down on economic development
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster has completed a rare hat trick.
With his re-election victory this week, Dyster is the first mayor of Niagara Falls to win a third straight term since former Mayor Michael O’Laughlin, who served from 1976 to 1991.
But the road to victory was not easy for Dyster. He barely squeaked by in a primary election for the Democratic line, defeating City Councilman Glenn Choolokian, a frequent Dyster critic, by just 64 votes.
His victory in the general election was more decisive, but not by much. He won 49 percent of the vote in the heavily Democratic city, with his main challenger, Republican businessman John Accardo, garnering 39 percent of ballots cast. About 11 percent went to write-in candidates, including Choolokian, who waged a write-in campaign and likely pulled votes from Democrats who dislike Dyster.
In an interview with City & State, the mayor attributed the close call in the primary and the large number of write-in votes cast to apathy among supporters on the election days, his opponents’ ability to energize their voters and what he called an “accumulation of grievances” that pose a challenge for any politician serving multiple terms.
“Every decision you make, there’s going to be someone who doesn’t like it,” Dyster said. “You gradually build up people who on one issue you’ve upset them during your time in office and they’re now going to vote against you every opportunity that they get.”
But Dyster, who ran largely on the progress that has been made downtown during his tenure with new hotels and entertainment attractions, was able to muster enough support for another term. Looking ahead, Dyster said he hopes to finish what he started in the economic revitalization in the city.
The progress downtown is largely attributable to the ties he has cultivated with state and federal officials and agencies, Dyster said. For example, major projects like Mark Hamister’s Hyatt Place project, the planned WonderFalls development at a long-defunct mall and the $40 million train station that has been going up in the city’s north end all received significant funding from the state or federal government.
Dyster said the projects show that he has been able to change the perception of the city from an insular, balkanized outpost rife with infighting to a city that’s ready to work with developers to capitalize on its unique asset, the thundering waterfall at its edge.
The mayor said that he hopes to continue his work with the Cuomo administration and execute a shared vision of Niagara Falls as a tourist destination with more year-round attractions to encourage families to stay longer and get people to visit in the off season.
“We have no problem finding stuff for people to do on a sunny day in July,” Dyster said. “But, when the sun goes down, even in the summertime or when it starts raining, even in the summertime, or certainly in the off season we need more for people, especially for families, to do.”
In addition, Dyster sits on the board of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the entity overseeing the development of additional companies that will make up the supply chain for the SolarCity solar panel plant set to open in Buffalo.
Niagara Falls, which has a long history as a provider of clean energy through hydropower, is well positioned to capitalize on opportunities to be part of that supply chain, he said.
“We’re looking to try to capture some significant portion of the supply side business for SolarCity here in Niagara Falls,” Dyster said. “I think that’s another piece of the puzzle. We don’t want to be dependent on the tourism industry going forward the way we were on heavy industry in the ’60’s and ’70s.”
Still, the mayor faced myriad challenges in his first two terms, many of which his administration is far from overcoming. The city, like most in the region and across the state, struggles with pervasive poverty. Unlike some other cities, Niagara Falls lacks the top tier wealth of places like Buffalo and Rochester. Since de-industrialization that began in the 1960s and ’70s, the former manufacturing powerhouse has failed to find an adequate replacement for the jobs lost, and most middle-class jobs are now in the public sector. About half of city residents live within 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines, or below a threshold of $48,500 for a family of four.
“There’s still a lot of work that has to be done on the economic development side,” Dyster said. “The engine is turning there, but I think now the challenge becomes how you make certain that all that new investment, all these new job opportunities, how you make certain that that actually impacts the lives of average people in the city of Niagara Falls, and that’s actually harder.”
The city has already been working with groups like Isaiah 61 and the Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope to create job training opportunities and to try to provide services and support people need to get into good jobs, but there is still much to be done, Dyster said.
“You can create jobs in the tourism industry, you can create jobs in green tech, you can create jobs in the medical care field,” Dyster said. “But, are the people that live in Niagara Falls prepared to step into those opportunities or do they need some sort of soft skill development or hard skill training in order to be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that are there?”
Another major challenge for Dyster’s next term will be bringing his budget in line.
While the city has high property taxes, often a gripe of residents, it has been dealing with consistent budget gaps that the mayor has plugged with funds from a now largely depleted reserve account.
This year, without the reserve funds as an option, Dyster has submitted a proposed budget that increases the amount of casino revenues used in the general fund by about $4.5 million, a similar amount to what he has pulled from reserve funds in recent years, by redirecting some of the casino funds from other uses.
He sees the move as a stopgap measure that can be avoided in future years as more properties are developed and the assessment rolls swell, he said.
“This is going to be a more prosperous community in the future, 10 years down the road or wherever” Dyster said. “But we’ve got to get through a few lean years in the meantime.”
Despite the many challenges that remain, Dyster sees a third term as an opportunity to solidify his efforts to set the city on an upward trajectory.
“Having got the economic engine going here,” he said, “I think we need to focus on the things that are important to people in their lives and their neighborhoods.”