Sat October 22, 2022 7:05 AM
By Michael J. Billoni
Grand Island Town Supervisor John C. Whitney, PE, said in a lengthy interview with the Island Dispatch that he will not be seeking re-election when his first term ends next year.
“These reasons are personal,” said Whitney, who plans to remain an island resident in retirement. “I love Grand Island. I will be playing more golf and cross-country skiing here in the winter.
As he nears the end of his first three years as supervisor, Whitney reflected on the explosive announcements that took place during his first month in office: the sudden closure of Fantasy Island; the new Project Olive would like to develop a 3.8 million square foot facility on the large parcel along the New York State Thruway I-190 owned by Acquest Development LLC of Amherst; and how the city coped with the coronavirus pandemic, which began during his third month in office. He also talked about other ongoing developments and projects.
Whitney began the interview with the latest from Aquest Development, which recently submitted a full set of information for “The Grand Island Commerce Center.” The plan calls for a one-story 1.1 million square foot building for high-rise storage compared to the 825,000 square foot footprint with four stories and a total of 3.8 million square feet for the Olive project, which has been identified as a regional distribution center for Amazon, the online retail giant.
Whitney said the acquisition plan does not identify a tenant for its facilities, but the city has created an escrow fund for review as the project now goes through the National Environmental Quality Review (SEQR ).
“When they came to us with their plan, we asked them to do an additional environmental impact statement, and we gave them a positive statement,” Whitney explained. “We believe there is a significant impact, and now they must go through the SEQR process for approval to mitigate and minimize any of these potential impacts. SEQR is not intended to stop a project .
Acquest still has several steps to complete before this project is submitted for City Council approval, which could be in the first quarter of 2023.
Whitney said project documents are on the city’s website.
“One of the results of COVID, when we were having all our meetings virtual, was to create a YouTube channel of the city where there is a library of our meetings, and for us to post all the documents around the different projects the city is working, so we can really be a transparent administration for our residents,” he said.
Transformation of the Radisson hotel
Another project that could be approved by the planning board and city council by the end of November is the development of the Radisson Hotel Niagara Falls-Grand by Justin B. Earl, a Salt Lake City area developer and his partner , Michael J. Conroe. of Elev8 architecture in Orchard Park.
They plan to convert the 263-room hotel on the banks of the Niagara River into apartments, restaurants, banquet spaces and retail on the 12-acre footprint along East River Road on Whitehaven Boulevard.
“The Radisson is in bad shape, and this project would be a huge improvement – and that really helps with the Hamlet idea in this area,” Whitney said. “They really want to make the restaurants viable again and with some commercial uses in this building, some future improvements to the nearby marina, hopefully future development on the empty land of Whitehaven and East River, and with the course of River Oaks golf course next door, you suddenly have a whole community there.
The owners have provided the city with architectural renderings that show their proposed resident amenities with a riverside walkway and a kayak launch, Whitney explained.
When Whitney moved into the supervisor’s office in January 2020, one of her first jobs was to handle complaints about aggressive beggars along Grand Island Boulevard and in parking lots in her place.
“Begging is a First Amendment right. It’s a freedom of expression,” Whitney explained. “You cannot violate this right, but beggars cannot be aggressive. We have enacted a local law that protects people from harassment by beggars standing in front of someone to beg for money. That’s crossing the line, and the new law has dramatically reduced begging on the island.
Fantasy Island/Niagara Splash World & Amusement Park
In early February, Whitney was attending a Federation of Cities meeting when her assistant, Rhonda Diehl, received a call that APEX was deciding to shut down Fantasy Island.
“It was pretty intimidating, because of the park’s history on Grand Island,” the supervisor said. “When new owner Gene Staples came along, we worked closely with them to secure the park’s return.”
The site opened as a water park on Labor Day weekend in 2021 with Gary Fauk as operations manager. In 2022, more of the park has been opened.
“It was a shame with the amount of vandalism that happened after APEX moved away from the park,” Whitney said. “I give this new owner a lot of credit for what he has done there. This is a niche park that caters to young children and families. They did a great job of cleaning up and they opened part of the amusement park, western shows and water park, as well as the water park and kids pool. It really is a first-class operation, and it’s great to have them reopened.
“This park has been on Grand Island for over 60 years and is truly part of our fabric,” Whitney added. “If it had remained in poor condition, I don’t know what would have happened there; so it was a great way to bring him back and keep him in our Grand Island family.
A week after APEX called about Fantasy Island’s closure, Whitney left the office late on a Friday afternoon for a meeting. That’s when representatives from the law firm Phillips Lytle LLC in Buffalo arrived with boxes of files they were submitting for a project called Project Olive. Having no idea what it was, Diehl called the supervisor, and he came back to review the delivery.
Thus began the Amazonian journey on Grand Island.
“We initiated the process for this project through City Hall, and since the onset of COVID the following month, we have posted all documents and meetings on our website to keep the public up to date on this massive project” , explained Whitney. “In August 2020, we were planning a public hearing both in person at City Hall and online on a Monday evening. And the previous Thursday, we were outside recording locations 6 feet away from the City Hall to the Fire Department.
“Then we get a phone call from their reps who just say, ‘We’re withdrawing the project.’ The public hearing never took place. The project was never put to a vote and I have no concrete answer as to why they pulled out.
Should the center have been built on Grand Island?
“It never got to this point,” Whitney replied. “So an answer would be speculation on my part.”
“When the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020, we basically tried to split our workforce into two different groups because, if we had stayed as one workforce and COVID plagued our workforce, we would be in serious trouble” , said Whitney. . “We were very careful to keep each area clean; we wore and distributed masks, and we followed the mandates – but we kept the government open.
“A result of COVID (was) a number of people retired, and a lot of knowledge came out with them. It was an unexpected and interesting time for all of us.
Southpointe’s long-planned development has obtained preliminary approval of its initial design, which is highly simplified. Whitney said the project has been quiet lately, but he expects it to continue. It’s been on the planning table for nearly 20 years, and this latest project will span 300 acres – but only 140 will be developed, leaving 160 acres of land open.
The property has Baseline Road to the west; Love Road to the south; the south promenade to the east; and the NYS Thruway boardwalk entrance ramp to the north.
The supervisor said this 27-acre development of single family homes, townhouses, apartments and commercial uses is progressing. It has received its approvals and the city is awaiting the design work before the actual development begins.
This property is bounded on the south by the northern property lines of the houses on Webb Road; to the west, the eastern property lines of homes on Baseline Road; and it starts behind the building that houses Dunkin Donuts, Pizza Amore, and the Speedway on Grand Island Boulevard. It was assumed that the developers bought the car repair shop next door.
“That’s really the style of downtown development that we’ve been trying to achieve with our current comprehensive plan,” Whitney said.
The Overseer’s Legacy
When he walks out of town hall on the last day of December 2023, what would Whitney like his legacy as supervisor to be?
“We tried to move Grand Island in the best direction possible,” he replied.