Buffalo News Editorial: State funds provide help for Niagara Falls

If any Main Street in New York needs the help of the state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative, it’s the one in Niagara Falls. Others may be in similarly dire condition – though it’s hard to imagine – but none cuts through the heart of a high-profile but severely underperforming tourist destination.

Main Street Niagara Falls is, in a word, dreary. It looks like a place you don’t want to go and, in that, it is precisely what no one would want in any tourist city, let alone one with an internationally famous name. Not that there’s any great need to go. Besides the new police station and new train depot, there’s little reason for anyone – visitor or resident – to make a point of traveling Main Street.

But by snagging the $10 million Western New York prize in the annual initiative, it’s possible that Main Street will improve. There’s a lot that can be done.

The city’s application focuses on what the city now calls the Bridge District, an area bounded by Main and 11th streets, Chasm Avenue and Portage Road. Half of the city’s 14 proposed projects are entirely grant-funded infrastructure projects. The others were economic development projects in which private investment would carry most of the load.

That seems a sensible division of funds – the state cannot fix Niagara Falls on its own; as in Buffalo, it needs to leverage private investment. That’s the goal on Buffalo’s East Side, where the state directed $50 million as part of Buffalo Billion II, in a welcome effort to draw the interest of developers.

Niagara Falls’ proposed projects include $2 million to kick off a $10 million fund meant to preserve historic buildings, an $800,000 fund to improve residential properties and a $6 million hotel at the northwest corner of Main and Ontario streets, with the state paying half the cost.

Especially interesting is a proposed academic building at Main Street and Cleveland Avenue on what is now a parking lot. The state would contribute $900,000 toward a $10.5 million, 60,000-square-foot academic building, apparently for use by Niagara University.

A restaurant and small event space in a vacant building next to the Rapids Theatre would cost $1.15 million, including $225,000 from the revitalization program.

Such projects – especially those that draw people into the Bridge District – could certainly help achieve the crucial goal of turning around this bedraggled section of what should, by all rights, be a thriving, exciting area. It’s a smart approach.

Other efforts, many led by the state, are also underway in Niagara Falls.

Most prominent right now is the project to tear up part of the Niagara Scenic Parkway that for decades has divided residents from the spectacular Niagara Gorge. The $42 million project includes the reconstruction of Whirlpool Street and, where the parkway used to be, a network of multiuse trails along the rim of the gorge. It will serve both residents and tourists who know about the falls but are unfamiliar with the attractions of the gorge.

In a separate project, the state is paying to remove invasive species of plants along the gorge and replace them with native plants.

Earlier this year, the state completed its purchase of 31 properties that run through the center of Niagara Falls’ tourist district. The state hope to sell the parcels to others who will use them to revive that part of the city’s core. It was the largest real estate deal in downtown Niagara Falls since the state turned over 54 acres to the Seneca Nation of Indians for their casino in 2003. Mayor Paul A. Dyster called it a “game changer.”

It’s a lot, but there’s no telling if its the right combination of ingredients or enough of them. But it amounts to a thoughtful and creative effort to pull the city’s socks up and give it a chance to become what it was meant to be: a first rate American tourist destination.

Published by The Buffalo News Editorial Board, Aug. 24, 2019.