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Niagara Falls pro bono work a major headache for BoDo developer

People flood Old Falls Street in Niagara Falls, N.Y., during a street festival put on by the Niagara Falls Conference Conference & Event Center. There is debate on whether a "Holiday Market" organized by BoDo developer Mark Rivers and held on the street during the 2011 Christmas season was a success. Photo courtesy of the Niagara Falls Conference & Event Center

The Boise developer of BoDo has come under scrutiny in Niagara Falls, N.Y. for a “Holiday Market” that critics call a taxpayer boondoggle.

But supporters in the area say Boise developer Mark Rivers, who grew up in western New York, is the victim of political crossfire in a town known for parochialism and a distrust of outsiders.

Rivers said he was simply trying to do a good deed for a city that has lost half its population in the past 50 years to economic hardship. He’s disappointed at the backbiting that has followed a project that could be counted as successful.

“It’s a lesson learned for me. You can try to do good, but you have to do it in a place where doing good is possible,” Rivers said.

The controversy stems from a 37-day temporary market during the 2011 Christmas season in the once strong commerce center of Old Falls Street, the main arterial connecting the city to Niagara Falls State Park. The park is a popular viewing location for the famous 180-foot falls into the Niagara River, a tourist destination that is shared by the state of New York and by Ontario, Canada — although Canada has been getting the lion’s share of tourism dollars in recent years.

Mark Rivers

Rivers, through his company Brix & Company, pitched the idea to local leaders as a destination shopping event that would include concerts, ice skating and as many as 80 vendors in temporary booths — all to get people to return to a now-desolate street.

Global Spectrum, a national venue manager and entertainment promotion company owned by Comcast, partnered with Rivers to run the event. Rivers did the marketing and organization, free of charge, and Global Spectrum handled the money.

The venture received $450,000 worth of public funding, including $225,000 from the city of Niagara Falls.

In a March 2011 letter to the Niagara Falls City Council, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster indicated he expected large results from the event, which was estimated to cost $900,000.

“The Niagara Holiday Market will feature approximately eighty (80) vendors from various parts of the region and the country as well as events and entertainment scheduled at regular intervals … The estimated attendance is projected to be approximately 250,000 people,” the letter states.

But Global Spectrum’s financial report, delivered to the city following the event, showed the event fell far short of those expectations.

There were 30 vendors, some of whom did not participate in the entire 37-day run. Three concerts booked for the event sold less than 1,000 tickets — including 768 for the Canadian Tenors, 714 for Aaron Neville and 350 for Elisabeth von Trapp. A Santa Claus event drew about 1,400 people, according to the report.

Sponsorships, which included giants like Key Bank and Blue Cross/Blue Shield, generated about $200,000 for the event. Another roughly $100,000 was created through revenues from vendor rentals, ice skate rentals and concerts, the report states.

Between the generated revenues and sponsorships, the event came up about $150,000 short of the public money that was supposed to be pumped into the event in initial proposals. The overall expenditures were $30,000 more than the funding provided by both public and private sources, according to the report.

The outcome has some City Council members criticizing Rivers and Global Spectrum for what they call a busted project.

“We feel that it was a big farce, a big waste of our taxpayers’ money,” City Council Chairman Sam Fruscione said, adding that Rivers was allowed to “run rampant” with public dollars.

Fruscione is heading an inquiry into the spending related to the Holiday Market and what he calls a “cover up” of finances by Global Spectrum.

Global Spectrum had its financials audited by a third party accounting firm. Rivers did not have access to the money, outside of some reimbursements his company received for up-front costs. Brix & Company volunteered its labor for the project.

But Dyster, the Niagara Falls mayor, said Rivers is just a straw man for political infighting.

“I think there is a lot of ‘not my idea’ jealousy going on here,” Dyster said. “I think the City Council is desperate that some local person does this and they don’t have (Rivers) pegged as local.”

Dyster said he worries that the treatment Rivers is receiving will doom Niagara Falls to be pushed aside by other business people who could help revive the city from the economic pits.

“This is a problem that has existed in Niagara Falls going back decades. People just don’t know how to treat out-of-town developers and business people,” he said.

Fruscione said the fact that Rivers lives and works in the western United States makes it suspect that he was interested in economic development in New York.

“It’s just strange how a man from Idaho would come to Niagara Falls and pitch a festival here,” he said.

Rivers, Dyster and Global Spectrum still count the event as a success.

Dyster said Niagara Falls is “quite probably the poorest city in New York state” and seeing Old Falls Street with any people on it was nothing short of a miracle.

“It was desolate down there. There was a pigeon feathers blowing down the empty street type-of-thing,” he said.

Rivers said that for an experiment in creating commerce, the project showed that Niagara Falls could actually draw people into town to shop, a major improvement over the status quo. He said vendors were pleased with their sales and stakeholders were generally pleased with the event.

“It was a well-intended project gone pretty well given all the challenges and considerations and the politics there, which are as brutal as you would find in the United States,” Rivers said.

He said the push-back from the City Council was present from the project’s inception.

The whole experience has given Rivers a renewed appreciation for Boise, where “we don’t have this level of politics or negativity or pessimism,” he said.

Dyster said he hopes to push for a similar event to be continued in the future, but Rivers said he would not be participating.

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