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8 Months Later, Ron Rienas Replies to the Strand

About eight months ago, I linked to a post on a Crystal Beach, Ontario online news and opinion site called the Strand that alleged shady dealings between the Public Bridge Authority and Town of Fort Erie officials in regard to the disposition of Fort Erie’s Mentholatum Building, which the PBA owned and had planned to lease to the town. I knew nothing of the matter, and still don’t—I don’t even know where the Mentholatum Building is. I figured I’d post what the Strand had written and see what folks thought. One guy responded, saying basically that the Strand was wrong and using unreliable sources.

Yesterday, eight months later, PBA manager Ron Rienas responded, too, by email:

Earlier this month the PBA sold the Mentholatum Building to the Boys and Girls Club of Niagara. The sale price was the same that the Peace Bridge Authority (PBA) paid for the building approx. 4 1/2 years ago.

The building was initially acquired by the PBA and used for Peace Bridge purposes to facilitate the reconstruction of the Canadian Customs Plaza. The PBA is required by Canadian law to provide facilities for the immigration/refugee function including facilities for an NGO that provides refugee services. As the reconstruction of the plaza involved demolition of buildings housing those functions we were obligated to provide alternative space. The Canadian plaza construction was completed in 2007 allowing these uses to return to the plaza enabling the PBA to dispose of the building.

As a public entity and in keeping with Town of Fort Erie plans to utilize the building for community purpose, the Board did originally offer the use of the building to Town for a $1.00/year lease but the Town would be required to pay all utilities, taxes, maintenance, etc. When there was opposition to that arrangement because it was incorrectly perceived as free rent competing with the private sector, the Board determined that it was simply not worth fighting to do something beneficial for the community. Accordingly the decision was made to sell the building but in keeping with the desire to maintain the building for a community benefit the PBA first offered it to charitable organizations before putting it on the open market. The Boys and Girls Club of Niagara acquired the property and will be using the building for its own purposes as well as leasing space to the Town and other community groups. The difference being that the capital cost of the building is now built into the rent structure costing community groups more money.

As for the other allegations in the article there was a full environmental assessment done on the building and no remedial environmental work was required. The elevator was repaired and there was  a roof repair – total cost I understood to be less than $10,000. The reference to the PBA giving “gifts ” is also not accurate as we continue, in the spirit of good corporate citizen, to make grants to groups and associations  on both sides of the river that meet pre-determined criteria.

This isn’t my bailiwick, so I’m not fact-checking Ron’s account anymore than I fact-checked the Strand’s. But I’d love to hear more from folks who know more about the issue.

  • Thanks for the link. I will get back with more information as it has been a while since the whole issue came to light. Curious that Reinas chose now to respond to the articles and opinions of months ago. What I do know is that the original proposal to lease the building to the town had to be taken off the table due to a potential lawsuit by a local businessman named Roger Rivett. There have many people who had problems with the whole deal as they believed (and I’m one of them) that the PBA purchased the Mentholatum Building solely to thwart the plans of the Ambassador Bridge project that called for the International Railway corridor to be used for its bridge. The Mentholatum Building backs onto that corridor. Since the PBA is a public authority, the purchase of the building was questioned and reports that NYS Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was looking into the purchase caused, according to my sources, the plan to lease the building to the town. (The PBA is not allowed to purchase property unless it will be used for PBA purposes. That is why Reinas mentions that they used the building during reconstruction. He fails to mention the Coal Docks property on the Nniagara River that the PBA also bought that they do not use – another purchase to thwart the Ambassador Project, in the opinion of many.) Since the PBA and the town have a very close relationship, (too close if you ask me,) the town stepped forward and took the deal, citing that the museum needed the space to store valuable artifacts. There was a great deal of local opposition to the deal and the threatened lawsuit caused the town to back away. Since then, the Boys and Girls Club has purchased the building, but the museum will be leasing space and town council authorized $650K towards the “move” and storage of the artifacts to the Mentholatum Building. The Strand has been dogged in its efforts to find the truth in this matter as it stinks like Mentholatum – and there’s no relief in sight.

  • John

    “The building was initially acquired by the PBA and used for Peace Bridge purposes to facilitate the reconstruction of the Canadian Customs Plaza. The PBA is required by Canadian law to provide facilities for the immigration/refugee function including facilities for an NGO that provides refugee services. As the reconstruction of the plaza involved demolition of buildings housing those functions we were obligated to provide alternative space. The Canadian plaza construction was completed in 2007 allowing these uses to return to the plaza enabling the PBA to dispose of the building.”

    Gee Ron, What did the Coal Docks have to do with this fantasy? The PBA purchased this property at the same time.

    Speaking of property, I read the PBA charter. If my memory is correct, it states that the PBA may not purchase property that is not contiguous to the original plaza. In case you need a definition, I am pretty sure “contiguous” means adjoining. This strikes me as breach of public trust. T “P” in PBA does stand for “Pubic” I think that means that you and the Board are accountable to the public.

    It is a good tale Ron but I don’t think there is anyone in FE stupid enough to believe it.

    Maybe you and Jimmy can get together and buy the Track and then you might lease it to the Boy Scouts for a million/year and they could sublet it to to the Town for an employee parking lot. Sh*T! It would only take the Taxpayers of FE another 100 years to pay for it.

  • Terry

    Way to stay current!

  • Ron Rienas

    Perhaps some explanations will be helpful.

    It would have been inappropriate to engage in a blog exchange pertaining to the property in the midst of discussions and negotiations to sell the property. Simply good business practice.

    As for the PBA’s acquisition of property, the PBA’s enabling legislation gives the PBA ability “to acquire, hold and dispose of real and personal property for its corporate purposes”. As was widely reported in the media at the time of the Coal Docks acquistion in 2004 the intent was to acquire the property to exchange it with the Niagara Parks Commision to facilitate construction of the new bridge.

  • Fort Erie’s town council authorized only $220,000 for a new artifact storage facility at the Mentholatum building, $82,000 of which is funded through a grant from the federal government, the rest from reserves built up through 30 years of fundraising by the museum and its supporting groups. The move is required to address health and safety and artifact security concerns at its existing locations and to allow the museum to meet specifications to receive funding from the provincial government and other agencies. How the figure of $650,000 arose that Sharon Bowers cites, one can only speculate. The information can be found on page 12 of appendix one of the town’s preliminary budget report CBC-01-08.

    In response to the comment by John, the purchase of the Coal Docks property at the foot of Jarvis Street is intended to leverage a trade with the Niagara Parks Commission for land near the Peace Bridge that would have been required to facilitate a Shared Border Management facility that would eliminate the need to acquire additional land in Buffalo for a plaza on the U.S. side. All of this has been fully covered in the local newspapers.

  • Kathy

    I have been monitoring this sad saga of misinformation with commissioners serving on the Niagara Parks Commission. They assure me that there was absolutely no discussions between the PBA and the NPC about purchasing the Coal Docks prior to the PBA purchasing the contaminated land. It was years after the purchase that Ron Rienas finally took it to the NPC and they said ‘no’.

    Sharon Bowers is right. The PBA’sfirst intention was to block the ANSBG from building another bridge. Ron Rienas told the Buffalo News (reported by Sharon Linstedt) at the time the PBA purchased the property from the Mentholatum Company, the intent was to block ANSBG.

    Rienas told another reporter the building was purchased to provide file storage space during the plaza construction.

    Now Rienas is trying to cover his tracks by claiming the building was purchased to facilitate immigration/refugee functions. Did anyone ever see any refugee services being offered out of the Mentholatum building?

    Obviously, construction still isn’t finished – witness the rain, snow and sleet that attack the Canadian Customs Officers at a secondary inspection because of the unprotected sides. –

    Everything after this latest claim is Rienas trying to cover his tracks for the illegal purchase per the PBA’s own operating charter. Cam Williams was the Solicitor for the PBA and the Mentholatum Company. No conflict there! Fort Erie town officials don’t seem to think so.

    Recently, a citizen of Fort Erie asked several town Councilors if the municipal government was legally satisfied with the rightful acquisition and ownership of this property by the PBA so that it does not raise any future legal concerns with any municipal involvement of the Meth. property. One elected representative responded that the PBA’s ownership of the Mentholatum building was now ‘irrelevant’; “If the PBA acquired the property illegally that is not our current problem.”

    That political arrogance is the very reason why the PBA, it’s Board of Directors and Ron Rienas believe they can do anything to the citizens of Fort Erie and Buffalo. They have and will continue to operate above the laws of New York State, the United States, Ontario and Canada.

    When you claim to be an ‘international super entity’ as does the PUBLIC Bridge Authority in its current lawsuit, the “P” in Public stands for ‘priviledged’. Their community presence as Ron Rienas claims is anything but “in the spirit of a good corporate citizen.” Living in the shadow of the peace bridge is like living under a military regime. They don’t serve the community, they occupy it!

  • Leigh Whyte

    For the purpose of full disclosure, and as some of you may know, I am a consultant that has been working with the ANSBG for several years. Although not working on the project at the time of the puchases of the Coal Docks and Mentholatum properties, I’d consider myself to be well-informed on the issue.

    I think that the record from 2004 was pretty clear that the acquisition of the Coal Docks property and the Mentholatum building was nothing but a strategic move to obstruct progress on the ANSBG project. The Niagara Falls Review reported on Friday August 6, 2004 that “PBA general manager Ron Rienas defended the bridge authority’s decision to buy the Coal Docks. he says the bridge authority is well within its mandate to purchase the property even though the property is not needed to carry out the PBA’s primary responsibility for operating the Peace Bridge. ‘Any actions that we take to protect our franchise rights are well within our mandate to do.’ Rienas said. He said no long-term plans have been settled on for future use of the property.” Subsequently it was published in the Buffalo News on August 8, 2004 that “‘It fits within our objectives as operators of an international border crossing to protect our franchise rights,’ said Peace Bridge General Manager Ron Rienas.” Further, it was published in the Fort Erie Times on September 25, 2004 that “[the properties] were also acquired as a measure to protect the PBA from the intentions of the Ambassador Niagara Signature Bridge Group.”

    It was only after substantial public criticism that the thinly veiled excuses were presented to attempt to justify the purchase of these properties.

  • John

    I think the only conclusion that can be drawn from the conduct of PBA & it’s board, is that they are either delusional, criminal or stupid. I also think there are Town officials involved in the mess. There have been too many suspicious land deals going on over the years concerning the so called “public” Bridge Authority, going all the way back to the days of the Garrison Inn.
    If we had accountability in government, law agencies would have stepped in long ago but we all know about accountability in government.
    I believe government has morphed over time from a service provider to a infectious parasite, sucking the life blood from people that actually pay taxes. (I hope I didn’t hold back too much here)
    The PBA’s purchase of the Coal Docks & the Meth. building was clearly a violation of its charter. There ain’t a court in the country that would see it differently. At the time of the purchase, I notified town officials of the contravention and as you might expect, nothing was done. I can not tell you how disappointed I was in the then, official who chose to close his eyes in the matter. I expected much better behaviour.

  • Interesting comment from Mike Cloutier who has been an employee of the PBA. He was commissioned to write a coffee table book about the building of the Peace Bridge. He is also former boyfriend and close friend of Jane Davies, the town’s historian. Last fall, he co-wrote and produced a presentation to council from the Museum Board that made the lack of storage space for artifacts to be critical and that the council just had to vote to buy the Meth Building as it was the only place that could hold these priceless things. About the only thing missing from this extravaganza was a bunch of doe-eyed kids singing a Rogers and Hammerstein song. Mike has made a career as a pro-PBA chronicler and flak.

  • The thing that amazes me is how disagreeable some people become when they disagree.

  • Mr. Whyte’s comment regarding statements in the press about the Coal Docks purchase are true. However, the PBA did write the town on July 26, 2004, stating “our intent is to work with the town and the NPC to further the long-term strategic objectives of all three public entities.” A point ignored in the newspaper stories. Rienas elaborated, “We have something we can work with the NPC on.” [Niagara This Week, Aug. 13, 2004] So from the get-go, both justifications for the land purchase were publicized.

    Regarding Sharon Bowers comments:

    The statement that I “co-wrote and produced a presentation to council from the Museum Board” about the Mentholatum building is completely untrue.

    I have never been an employee of the Peace Bridge. I was contracted to write and produce a book for the bridge’s 80th anniversary. This association I had has been freely and fully disclosed publicly and privately to anyone who would listen.

  • I rest my case.

  • Kathy

    Anytime someone identifies themself as a ‘non-employee’ of the PBA (only a paid contractor) but feels compelled to “explain” what Ron Rienas really meant to say about the real reason behind the purchase of the Coal Docks – alarm bells should be sounded. If we have learned anything from our dealings with Ron Rienas and the notorious PBA it is where there is smoke there is always a fire.

  • You rest your case what? The point I made was that your information was wrong and I corrected it, and what followed from you was a list of falsehoods to discredit me. You insinuated the museum is involved in some kind of smelly deal that you can’t quite put your finger on — you just think it’s smelly because the PBA is involved and the Town is involved.

    Whatever interpretation anyone wants to put on the motives of the Peace Bridge to buy those two pieces of property, the deals are net gains for the taxpayers of Fort Erie.

    The Coal Docks property is a sparkling riverside asset. Given the PBA’s cooperation with the Town and NPC on projects such Riverwalk Park, Friendship Trail, Veteran’s Way, the streetscape of Queen Street, the potential to have that as a centrepiece attraction for Bridgeburg is immense. What should also be made clear is the purchase of the Coal Docks was made after considerable dithering by the the ANSBG people, not wanting to do environmental testing. [Niagara This Week, Aug. 13, 2004]

    The Mentholatum building purchase allows the museum to acquire storage for artifacts, and it will also be used for other municipal storage. It puts into productive use an abandoned factory. The Boys and Girls Club have a facility in Bridgeburg — or have you been deaf to pleas for facilities for youth in Fort Erie?

    I can assure you that my support for the Peace Bridge vis-a-vis whether or not there should be second bridge and four-lane highway through Bridgeburg as ANSBG proposes has nothing to do with the fact that I did work for the Peace Bridge. It has everything to do with the fact they propose to build a second bridge in the heart of a downtown business district and pave over huge tracts of land for a so-called “secure” highway.

    There is an awful lot of talk about where there’s smoke there’s fire. I’d be interested in knowing exactly what these fires are. I am not compelled to explain Rienas’ statements, but if statements are going to be floated for the purpose of forming public opinion, let’s float them all.

  • Kathy

    Mike – If you feel so strongly about saving not paving over your community, then why is it acceptable to destroy mine? Surely, you are aware of the destruction the proposed plaza expansion would have on the adjacent west side community in Buffalo.

    Our property values and our health have suffered for decades. Why is that acceptable? The Public Bridge Authority SERVES two communities in two countries. How fortunate for you that you can point out the cultural and economic benefits afforded to Fort Erie and Bridgeburg because of the benevolent PBA.

    Our experience has been the direct opposite. The PBA has gone to unbelievable lengths to intentionally blight our neighborhoods, destroy our property values and transfer the blame back to the residents who have had the courage to stand up to them. They have wasted millions of taxpayer dollars shoving the same flawed plan down our throats while ignoring the increasing health problems in men, women and children. Medical studies conclusively link asthma, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes to diesel emissions.

    Since when is human health a trade off for museum artifact storage space, a river walk or a beautifcation project? Diesel emissions cause illness in Americans and Canadians.

    Shouldn’t we all be supporting a project, a plan and a process that benefits both sides of the border? Why shouldn’t both communities win? Why can’t the PBA operate with transparency? The truth is they don’t and they won’t because they are incapable of acting in the best interest of the public.

    Frankly, I think it is frightening when a public agency acquires eminent domain power then pursues legal recourse to prove they are an international compact entity not subject to the laws of Canada or the United States. Who does that serve?

    As I said before, where there is smoke there is fire.

  • How do you solve all the problems in the West End? I don’t know. But I do know that a bridge at the IRR will not solve them and just create more.

    Shared Border Management seemed to be a panacea for the local problems, but not practical from the feds’ perspective. I think some effort should be placed on that. I also think the ancient 100-foot clearance requirement over the Black Rock Channel should be revisited. I think a cable-stayed bridge is goofy. And I say, God Bless the Common Tern and its favourite food.

  • Leigh Whyte

    I would like to provide the following as a point of clarification. Some have misconstrued my comments as implying that there was no justification provided by the PBA for the acquisition of these properties prior to Mr. Rienas statements regarding the protection of their franchise. The PBA did exchange correspondence with the Town and the Niagara Parks Commission regarding their intent to use the property for some public purpose.