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It is perhaps not a secret among insiders that a plan has been afoot to not only study the building that has housed the Niagara Aquarium on Whirlpool Street but that, if all goes wrong, to close the aquarium and use the land for the Niagara Experience Center.
At a recent meeting of the Niagara Tourism Advisory Board, Gay Molnar, executive director of the aquarium, all but raised this prospect.
Cannon Design has undertaken a $66,000 needs assessment on the building, the money coming from state taxpayers via USA Niagara.
The concern is that if the study indicated that too much work was needed, USA Niagara would come to the rescue, not to save the aging aquarium, but instead to suggest that the aquarium building, being too antiquated, is best closed. Then consideration could be given for using this valuable 4.2 acre site for the Niagara Experience Center.
The Experience Center is a 12-year-old plan originally formulated by local historian Paul Gromosiak and kept alive through the years by Mayor Paul Dyster and chief planner Tom DeSantis. The estimated $100 million attraction would feature interactive exhibits in a Disney-type foray that would allow visitors to experience the Falls virtually. It has not moved passed the preliminary concept drawing stage.
It can only be built, its sponsors say, on the socialist model – of government taking taxpayer money and using it to create the attraction in partnership with a politically-favored private developer, who will be given the land for free and much of the money to build the $100 million dollar attraction.
Going forward, the developer, who will make suitable campaign contributions to the people who will approve the subsidy, will then own the project privately.
The same model is being employed on Parcel 4 in downtown Niagara Falls with Buffalo developer Mark Hamister where the city is giving the developer a multi-million dollar parcel of land, 300 feet from the Falls and then the state is giving millions more in taxpayer subsidies to a millionaire to, in effect, reward him with a nearly free hotel.
Hamister gave five-figure contributions to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and was part of an organization that made high six-figure contributions to support Cuomo.
The socialist model of public-private partnership is a form of indirect campaign fund raising. And a great return on investment for developers.
Molnar did not publicly admit her concern that the Cannon study is a death warrant to the aquarium, but it is clear she opposes a closure plan.
She is very active in the community and has dedicated years of her life to keeping the aquarium alive, during some economically challenging times including during the early 2000’s when the Aqua Falls project, the underground aquarium that was never built, was being advertised as “coming soon” making it difficult to raise money for her aquarium.
The Niagara Aquarium perhaps cannot survive on a for-profit model, in spite of the fact that some 200,000 plus tourists visit it every year.
Although it is included in the Niagara Falls State Park Discovery Pass as one of the bundled attractions, it is not enough of an attraction on its own, as it is today, to survive in a world where glitz and glamour attracts dollars and simple, honest opportunities to study and learn about, for example, sea life seems boring indeed to short attention spans.
In order to compete in the brave new world of attractions, the facility would need substantial investment.
The property sits just north of the Falls and has been described as the gateway property to the north.
USA Niagara, which is funding the study, has given taxpayer money to all sorts of strangers who come from anywhere, including Boise’s Mark Rivers and Canada’s Faisal Merani.
This is the first time it has offered a penny to the aquarium. That is because they have only recently expanded their so-called “footprint” to reach the site where the aquarium sits just north of downtown.
The expansion of the footprint and the offer of money to study the 47-year-old facility appears threatening to some, rather than helpful.
Gerry Genova is president of the Niagara Falls Tourism Board and he thinks the aquarium is worth the public investment it would take to upgrade it.
He says he’d rather see USA Niagara get behind investing in the aquarium to keep this attraction and make it a grand experience, rather than investing in getting it closed down - or on some frivolous project for some out-of-town or politically-favored developer.
Referring to Mark Rivers whom USA Niagara handed $261,000 to create the failed Holiday Market, without accountability, Genova said: “They have the money for an out-of-town huckster with a handful of magic beans, but they don’t have anything for the aquarium, which has been here since 1965? That’s unacceptable. I would be opposed to USA Niagara seeking to close the aquarium.”
Buffalo’s waterfront has been mentioned as an aquarium site.
Molnar, when contacted by the Reporter, acknowledged she has heard the rumor that certain people might want to shutter the place to grab the land for their “baby” (the Experience Center), but she has no exact knowledge of it.
“The purpose of the Cannon study is to study our structure internally for our next phase. But we are always open to discussion.” USA Niagara president Chris Schoepflin failed to return calls.