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By Mike Hudson

Third Street restaurateur Dan Vecchies has nearly a million dollars tied up in his Shadow Martini Bar. Workmen spent more than a year completely gutting the building, building a new facade from the ground up and putting in a gourmet kitchen along with a fashionable lounge and dining area.

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Across the street, Steve Fournier bought the building housing the long-abandoned Rockwell's, refurbished the interior largely by himself, and opened Cafe Etc., the upscale jazz club now popular with politicians and young professionals alike. Fournier is currently expanding the space and putting in an elaborate terrace behind the nightclub that will provide a spectacular sunset view. Aside from the considerable sweat equity, Fournier raised the money for the project himself.

But the next restaurateur to locate downtown may not have to face the problem of securing capital and taking a financial risk. That's because the State of New York, through its USA Niagara Development Corp., is prepared to offer some lucky hash-slinger a no-strings cash grant of up to $1 million, along with benefits including sales tax exemptions, wage tax credits, investment tax credits, low-interest loans and corporate tax reduction credits to open an eatery at the recently opened Conference Center Niagara Falls.

A Request for Proposals (RFP) dated Sept. 6 offers up 7,900 square feet of space, which can be sub-divided to suit prospective tenants. And, unlike the restaurants on Third Street and elsewhere around the city, the state virtually guarantees customers.

"USA Niagara anticipates that restaurants located within the Conference Center will have the opportunity to capture demand by participating in the Complete Meeting Package, a package that may include each visitor's lodging, meals, entertainment and conference services offered to center visitors," the RFP states.

The new RFP grew out of a failed attempt to attract a restaurant to the conference center back in January. The primary difference between the two requests is that USA Niagara has now sweetened the pot with the $1 million grant offer.

At the time of the earlier request, several downtown restaurant owners, including Vecchies and Fournier, were critical of the state's plan. Kevin Dell, proprietor of Dell's Arterial Lounge on Niagara Street, said that, while he welcomed more restaurants and variety in the casino district, they should all be on a level playing field.

"It's not right," Dell told the Reporter. "We put a lot of money and sweat into opening this place, and we have to pay all of our taxes."

Several sources involved in community development here over the years say that the bar and restaurant business isn't a good use of taxpayer dollars.

Aside from the fact that the subsidized establishments compete with privately funded bars and restaurants, jobs created by grants and loans are typically low-paying and don't add much to the local economy.

"You don't have to look any farther than the experiences the county Industrial Development Agency or the city's community development department have had to know it's not a good idea," one said. "There are far more failures in the restaurant business than anything else."

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Sept. 21 2004