By Tony Farina;
Could it be the start of a new era of bipartisanship, a new and exciting chapter in the city of Niagara Falls, a heavily Democratic urban core in a county where Republicans control the legislature 11 to 4?
Well, nobody should jump to conclusions too quickly because Niagara Falls has a history of letting political differences undermine progress. But there is a major project on the horizon that is slowly coming into focus and it has a distinctly bipartisan flavor, at least at this point, and that’s certainly worth noting.
Let’s begin this story by saying there are still some contingencies to be dealt with before there is a final go-ahead on a feasibility study for a new downtown multi-purpose arena including a convention center, but one of the four minority Democrats on the legislature who has played a major role in the bipartisanship effort is hopeful that working together, the city, county, and state can deliver for Niagara Falls and help reclaim the benefits of the old convention center without struggling to stay open.
“This is great news, the city, county and state working together on economic development,” says Jason Zona who represents the 5th District (Niagara Falls) in the county legislature. “Clearly, we need a feasibility study to see if we have a need and can sustain a multi-use facility for events year-round.”
And Democrat Zona is particularly encouraged by the cooperative political effort that is on display for all to see.
“The fact that it is a bipartisan effort is very important,” says Zona. “Having Sen. [Robert] Ortt, the city and county economic development teams working together is something the governor will hopefully take notice of. Nobody can deny we need to make Niagara Falls a year-round tourist destination. We lost a lot of revenue when the state took our convention center and I’m hoping now is the time we rectify that.”
With Zona–a member of the minority bloc– leading the way, the Niagara County Legislature has committed $50,000 for a feasibility study for a new arena and State Sen. Ortt (R-C-I- North Tonawanda) has secured $1.6 million in state funding to help revitalize Niagara Falls to spur development downtown, building out from the Seneca Niagara Casino, and according to Zona has indicated he will commit up to $50,000 of that state money to a feasibility study.
The next chapter of this unfolding story will come Monday when the Niagara Falls City Council is expected to approve a $50,000 contribution to the study as long as the funding from the county and the state are in place and the city’s law department and office of economic planning and development sign off on the RFP for the study developed by the Niagara County Department of Economic Development, according to a memo to the council from Mayor Paul Dyster.
Councilman Andrew Touma said the city certainly needs the revenue that could be generated by a convention center/arena that would also put people to work and help make Niagara Falls a year-round destination, not just a tourist season stop.
“It will be interesting,” says Touma, “to see what the other potential major players in this project will do,” an obvious reference to Howard Milstein and his undeveloped Niagara Falls Redevelopment property adjacent to the casino and the Seneca Nation. Their potential involvement would certainly be part and parcel of any feasibility study on a downtown arena given the likely location of that new facility bordering the casino and Milstein’s property.
And along those same lines, Sen. Ortt said in a statement to the Niagara Falls Reporter on Wednesday that the $1.6 million in state funds he was able to secure to revitalize Niagara Falls is earmarked “to spur economic development in downtown Niagara Falls, building out from the Seneca Niagara Casino. Utilizing our status as a world class tourist destination, the intent is to attract private partners in Niagara Falls. A feasibility study should not only look at the need and location of a project, but also at the other financing options before placing the burden on the backs of the taxpayers.”
So there you have it. The state, county, and city on the same page, at least at this point, on a feasibility study to determine the need for a downtown convention center/arena to help bring more tourist dollars into the area by offering a year-round facility that might, suggests Zona, be the kind of complex that could be home to high wire daredevil Nik Wallenda who put Niagara Falls on the world map five years ago with his breathtaking walk across the falls and would be a great draw for families visiting the falls.
The old convention center was a muti-purpose venue that hosted many sporting events and other attractions before it closed in 2002 after a 29-year run. While it was a major off-season tourist attraction, it did struggle before closing and a new facility, potentially located near the casino, could benefit from the gaming attraction and private investment and support in the area.
It is certainly encuraging to see a bipartisan effort that seems focused on trying to find a way to extend the tourist season in the World Wonder city and help fill hotel rooms and generate revenue for a city and region that could use a 12-month attraction, not a May to September season. Let’s hope the players in this effort continue to work together and build toward a better future for this city.