By Michael J. Billoni
Grand Island Town Supervisor John C. Whitney, P.E., said during a lengthy interview with the Island Dispatch he would not seek reelection when his first term ends next year.
“Those reasons are personal,” said Whitney, who plans to remain an Island resident in his retirement. “I love Grand Island. I will play more golf and cross-country ski here in the winter.”
As he nears the end of his initial three years as supervisor, Whitney reflected on bombshell announcements that occurred during his first month in office: the sudden closing of Fantasy Island; the news 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 town dealt with the coronavirus pandemic, which began in his third month in office. He also spoke of other developments and projects underway.
Whitney began the interview with breaking news from Aquest Development, which recently submitted an entire package of information for “The Grand Island Commerce Center.” The plan calls for a 1.1-million-square-foot, one-story building for high-bay storage compared with the 825,000-square-foot footprint with four stories and a total of 3.8 million square-feet for Project Olive, which was identified as a regional distribution center for Amazon, the online retail behemoth.
Whitney said the Acquest plan does not identify a tenant for its facility, but the town has established an escrow fund for review as the project now goes through the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR).
“When they came before us before with their plan, we required them to do a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, and we gave them a positive declaration,” Whitney explained. “We feel there is a significant impact, and now they must go through the SEQR process for approval to mitigate and minimize any of those potential impacts. SEQR is not meant to stop a project.”
Acquest still has several steps to follow before this project goes before the Town Board for approval, which could be sometime in the first quarter of 2023.
Whitney said the project’s paperwork is on the town website.
“One of the results of COVID, when we were holding all of our meetings virtual, was to create a town YouTube Channel where there is a library of our meetings, and for us to post all of the paperwork around the various projects the town is working, so we can truly be a transparent administration for our residents,” he said.
Radisson Hotel Conversion
Another project that could be approved by the Planning Board and Town Board 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 shores of the Niagara River into apartments, restaurants, banquet space and retail on the 12-acre footprint along East River Road at Whitehaven Road.
“The Radisson is in disrepair, and this project would be a tremendous improvement – and it really helps with the hamlet idea in that area,” Whitney said. “They really want to make the restaurants viable again and, with some commercial uses in that building, some future improvements to the marina next door, hopefully some future development on the empty land at Whitehaven and East River, and with River Oaks Golf Course next door, you suddenly have quite a community there.”
The owners have provided the town with architectural renderings that show their proposed amenities to residents with a boardwalk along the river and a kayak launch, Whitney explained.
When Whitney moved into the supervisor’s office in January 2020, one of his first orders of business was dealing with the complaints about aggressive panhandlers along Grand Island Boulevard and in its plaza’s parking lots.
“Panhandling is a First Amendment right. It is a freedom of speech,” Whitney explained. “You cannot infringe on that right, but panhandlers cannot be aggressive. We enacted a local law that protects people from being harassed by panhandlers getting in someone’s face begging for money. That is crossing the line, and the new law has greatly reduced the panhandling on the Island.”
Fantasy Island/Niagara Splash World & Amusement Park
In early February, Whitney was at a Federation of Towns meeting when his assistant, Rhonda Diehl, received a call that APEX decided to close Fantasy Island.
“That was pretty daunting, because of the park’s history on Grand Island,” the supervisor said. “When Gene Staples, the new owner, emerged, we worked very closely with them to ensure the park would return.”
The site opened as a water park on Labor Day weekend in 2021, with Gary Fauk as its operations manager. In 2022, more of the park was opened.
“It was a disgrace with the amount of vandalism that had occurred after APEX walked away from the park,” Whitney said. “I give this new owner a tremendous amount of credit for what they have done there. It is a niche park that caters to younger children and families. They have done a great job cleaning it up, and they have opened some of the amusement park, the western shows, and the water park, along with the splash park and kiddie pool. It is truly a first-class operation, and it’s great to have them open again.”
“That park has been on Grand Island for over 60 years and is really part of our fabric,” Whitney added. “If it had staying in disrepair, I do not know what would have happened there; so, this was a great way to bring it back and keep it in our Grand Island family.”
A week after the APEX call about the Fantasy Island closing, Whitney had left the office late on a Friday afternoon for a meeting. It was then that representatives from the Phillips Lytle LLC law firm in Buffalo arrived with boxes of files they were submitting for a project called Project Olive. Having no idea what that was, Diehl called the supervisor, and he returned to review the delivery.
Thus began the Amazon journey on Grand Island.
"We started the process for this project through Town Hall and, since COVID began the following month, we posted all the materials and meetings on our website to keep the public aware of this massive project,” Whitney explained. “In August of 2020, we were planning for a public hearing, both in person at Town Hall and online on a Monday evening. And on the previous Thursday, we were outside taping off spots 6 feet apart from Town Hall to the fire department.
“Then we receive a phone call from their representatives who simply said, ‘We are withdrawing the project.’ The public hearing was never held. The project never came up for a vote, and I do not have a concrete answer on why they withdrew.”
Should the center have been built on Grand Island?
“It never got to that point,” Whitney responded. “So an answer would be speculation on my part.”
“When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, we basically tried to split our work forces into two different groups because, if we had stayed as one workforce and COVID went rampant through our workforce, we would be in serious trouble,” Whitney said. “We were very careful to keep every area clean; we wore and distributed masks, and we followed the mandates – but we kept the government open.
“One result from COVID (was) a number of people have retired, and a lot of knowledge walked out the door with them. It was an unexpected and interesting time for all of us.”
The long-planned Southpointe Development has been granted a preliminary plat approval of its initial design, which is very simplified. Whitney said the project has been quiet lately, but he expects it to continue. It has been on the planning table for nearly 20 years, and this latest project will be on 300 acres – but only 140 of it will be developed, leaving 160 acres as open land.
The property borders Baseline Road to the west; Love Road to the south; the South Parkway to the east; and the NYS Thruway’s parkway entrance ramp to the north.
The supervisor said this 27-acre development of single-family homes, town houses, apartments and commercial use is moving right along. It has been awarded its approvals, and the town is awaiting design work before the actual development begins.
This property is bounded on the south by the northern property lines of homes on Webb Road; to the west, the easternly property lines of homes on Baseline Road; and it begins behind the building that houses Dunkin Donuts, Pizza Amore and the Speedway on Grand Island Boulevard. It has been speculated the developers purchased the auto repair shop next door.
“It truly is the town center style of development we have been trying to achieve with our current comprehensive plan,” Whitney said.
When he walks out of Town Hall on the final day of December 2023, what would Whitney like his legacy as supervisor to be?
“We tried to keep Grand Island moving in the best possible direction,” he answered.