The One Niagara Welcome Center is located at 360 Rainbow Blvd. within earshot of mighty Niagara Falls and stands nine-stories tall, a can’t miss landmark that serves, according to its website, as a tourism and sightseeing haven offering bus tours, guided exploration, historical presentations, dining and souvenirs.
The bustling tourist center is one of downtown Niagara Falls’ bright spots, especially during the Memorial Day – Labor Day tourist season, but it wasn’t always that way.
Not too many years ago, in 2004, the onetime Occidental Chemical Corp.’s namesake building, built in the early 1980s, was a shell of its former grandeur, left to deteriorate by Occidental with only a single tenant remaining, the federal Small Business Administration, which was about to leave at the expiration of its lease.
The landmark building next to the Rainbow Bridge was an eyesore, made even worse by a giant empty hole taking up the entire parcel along Rainbow Blvd. that according to the developers holding sway at the time was to become a giant fish tank to attract visitors from around the world to Niagara Falls. The fish tank hole never got any fish and the SBA was leaving, leaving an empty, broken down, giant eyesore behind. But then something happened.
I have been a newspaper and television reporter most of my life and along the way I have met many people. One of them was a real estate developer named Frank Parlato of Buffalo who I came to know while chasing down a story in the streets of the city I had prowled for more than 30 years.
Well, one thing led to another, and one day after a breakfast meeting in the spring of 2004 with Parlato and a businessman with knowledge of the developing eyesore in Niagara Falls, we visited the Occidental Building and I remarked to Parlato, “this is quite a place, given the tremendous view from the top and the location next to the mighty falls. Too bad it is falling apart. It would be a great location to make something happen.”
Parlato felt the same way, and with his experience in real estate saw a business opportunity. With the Hong Kong owner running out of money, Parlato found a way to acquire the property and the rest is history. Without a dime of public money, he filled the giant hole and began to fix up the property, selling coffee and trinkets to start and bringing in a tour company to give visitors a guided tour of the historic places of Niagara Falls, starting with the mighty falls itself. That was just the beginning.
It took stamina and grit to get the hole filled, scotch tape and screwdrivers to get the building habitable, and some chalk to establish parking spots on the now covered hole. Piece by piece, opposed by city inspectors every step of the way, Parlato made something out of nothing.
There were back tax issues to deal with, too, although Parlato contended the property had been overtaxed for years and he filed suit against the city and eventually, after he sold the property in 2010, the lawsuit he started was settled with the city and a large discount in taxes proved he was right all along.
The new owners, including Gordon Reger and Paul Grenga, are now doing quite well on the property that had not too long ago been headed to the scrap heap.
It is a success story that tells about the resourcefulness and commitment of Parlato when it comes to business, and he did it all the while fighting behind the scenes with an alleged representative of the former owner who, once the property had been turned around, was anxious to get more than his rightful legal share – as the 10 lawsuits against Parlato established. Parlato won all 10 lawsuits.
Parlato has moved on but his work is still there for everyone to see, a busy tourist destination visited by millions of people every year, even opening briefly every day over the winter months for those hardy enough to still go to the falls, from near and far.
A shovel finally went into the ground recently at nearby 310 Rainbow Blvd. for the much-hyped Hamister business hotel that is being highly-subsidized by taxpayers, quite unlike what Parlato did at the decrepit Occidental Building without a penny of public money. No certain date when the Hamister Hotel will save downtown, but Parlato’s Occidental Building makeover was a pretty good start.
Parlato now finds himself fighting a federal corruption indictment that was at least partially fueled by the disgruntled minority partner who couldn’t win in court to siphon off the profits that Parlato had earned through hard work, sweat and dedication. I remember many nights when he worked around the clock to keep his project moving, providing more than one hundred jobs for many local people who might otherwise have gone hungry. And the bus tour, restaurant and retail businesses boomed, providing profits for local business people, who Parlato favored over chains and franchises.
As he was building the businesses, he not only successfully fought his deceptive minority partner, but fought the city which tried to close the building repeatedly and choke the property with excessive taxation. He also had to fight the State Parks who clearly complained that his business was taking away their near monopoly parking revenue – they tried to prevent him from even placing signs on his own businesses. But he fought and won – even placing a giant sign on his property in defiance of the State Park – with arrows right at the entrance – pointing one way to the State Parks’ $10 parking and an arrow pointing to his parking lot – at $5.
Now Parlato is fighting the federal government, and much like the grit he showed in developing the falls property, he is refusing to admit he did anything wrong (take a plea) when he feels he did absolutely nothing wrong.
Last week I wrote that he may have been the victim of a “ham sandwich” indictment, the kind where prosecutors can make a case just because they want to, even though the evidence may not quite be what it seems to be. But what does a grand jury know? They can only consider what it presented to them, and Parlato’s legal team believes they were misled by prosecutors.
That case is pending and a trial could be months–even years–away. The ordeal has been costly in financial terms, but while most people would be reduced to stress and fear at the enormous strain of having the most powerful government in the world train its sights on you, Parlato said this battle only makes him feel stronger, quoting his favorite saying, “If the whole world stands against you, sword in hand, will you still dare to do what you think is right?”
Parlato truly feels he has been falsely cast as a villain by malicious and perhaps politically motivated prosecutors when all he did was develop a building, create lots of jobs, and make lots of people money, even one of his alleged victims, a now-deceased business partner, who never said he was defrauded.
How it will all end for Parlato remains to be seen. But the developer-turned-journalist is fighting back, in part with the pen, against what he feels is a concocted indictment.
In the meantime, as a journalist, he was able to open riverboat tours (Maid of the Mist) on the Canadian side, ending Jimmy Glynn’s cross-border gold mine, and winning a bigger return from Glynn’s Maid of the Mist boat tours to New York State taxpayers although Gov. Andrew Cuomo proceeded without public bidding to take care of Glynn. On the Canadian side, open bidding led to a $300 million windfall for the Canadian parks.
From out of the blue, Parlato came to town and took Niagara Falls most ghastly eyesore – the going-nowhere Occidental Building with its giant ‘Aqua Pit’ at a time when the end was near. What an economic turnaround for many downtown businesses and what an opportunity for vendors and bus drivers to feed off the tourist business, clearly one of the best things Niagara Falls has to offer. Other than the tax free casino, Parlato’s development was the largest seen in Niagara Falls in decades and the only one that was developed without a dime of taxpayer money.
Those who are making money there can thank Frank Parlato for sticking with it against all odds.
Someday people may also thank Frank Parlato for sticking it out against what he calls “a remarkably dishonest indictment” – and also against all odds – doing it his way and proving that the spirit of America is freedom and that freedom is created, nourished and maintained only through the wondrous spirit of defiance from which this great country was created.