New York seeks to help economy of Niagara Falls

Tourist spot's U.S. side languishes while Canadian side booms

April 16, 2001|By Randal C. Archibold | Randal C. Archibold,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. - Tourism is booming around the self-proclaimed Honeymoon Capital of the World, with new hotels and attractions shooting up as fast as a trip down the falls in a barrel and 20,000 visitors a day flocking to the bustling Casino Niagara.

Unfortunately, all that is happening in Niagara Falls, Ontario. On this side of the border, the main attractions are ghosts of projects built and abandoned -a water park, a museum shaped like a turtle, an eerily vacant shopping mall, and a downtown rich in plywood-covered storefronts and fading signs.

In 2000, even the Niagara Falls Historical Society took its place in history when it became the first such organization to be dissolved by order of a judge after the state attorney general found mismanagement, fraud and scores of missing artifacts.

Now, after decades of frustration, New York has decided to form a state agency that will try to stoke a Times Square-style revival of this town, to finally capitalize on the 8 million annual visitors who come to see the falls but stay on average only a few hours before crossing the river to Canada.

There is, once again, talk of new hotels, restaurants, stores, maybe a casino and museums and nature trails. But as the effort gets under way, plans are competing with a history of failure so pervasive that the city has more in common with a serially jilted bride than the world capital of anything.

"I think even if Christ would come here and say, `I have come to save you,' people would say, `Yeah, I heard that before,'" said Paul Gromosiak, a local historian who thinks planners have overlooked the value of museums and nature trails to lure tourists away from Canada. "Cynicism is rampant here."

Some optimists

Of course, there are some optimists, like Irene J. Elia, a former nun and the city's mayor. Her job requires a sense of humor - she recently donned Groucho glasses for a Chamber of Commerce speech - and resiliency.

Elia, a Republican who took office in 2000, has established enough of a connection to Gov. George Pataki that he flew in shortly after her victory and agreed to support an ambitious redevelopment effort.

USA Niagara Development Corp., an arm of the Empire State Development Corp., the state economic development agency that was instrumental in the rehabilitation of Times Square in the 1990s, has the power to seize property from developers it sees as foot-dragging. The agency, which began operating last month and will be headed by Michael Wilton, a former aide to Pataki, has $5.1 million in start-up money and has begun gathering public opinion on the best course of action.

Niagara Falls itself is seen as the "anchor tenant," the equivalent of the Disney Store in Times Square that helped draw other developers to an otherwise depressed area. Many people believe a casino will be a part of the plan, to lure people from the packed Casino Niagara just over the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

"Probably," Elia said of this prospect, with a trace of regret. "I don't gamble. But if it is part of an entertainment plan here and a part of strong development, I will support it. As long as it is family oriented, with day care and other things."

Charles A. Gargano, the chairman of Empire State Development and a close Pataki adviser, said, "I don't envision large-scale gambling, but certainly gambling would be an attraction and would be helpful if it came about." Gargano said it was likely that the new agency would also seek new hotels, restaurants and stores.

In addition, after the governor called the observation tower overlooking the falls a monstrosity, the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation announced plans for a $23 million improvement project that will include lopping off the top 60 feet of the 280-foot tower and upgrading and expanding its elevators.

Reconfiguring parkway

To redress what almost everyone sees as a colossal error in planning, it will reconfigure the four-lane riverfront Robert Moses Parkway, which speeds people through the city and over the bridge into Canada. The parkway will become a two-lane road, with the other lanes devoted to hiking and biking.

Longtime residents still reminisce about decades past, when Falls Street boomed with pedestrians and theaters and small shops.

But since the glory days, there has been poor planning, corruption and the loss of heavy industry coupled with the loss of nearly half the city's population since 1960 (from 1990 to 2000, the population declined 11.4 percent, to 55,593).

An ill-conceived urban renewal plan in the 1960s and early 1970s leveled dozens of blocks without offering much to take their place. And there has been plain old bad luck, like international infamy as the home of Love Canal, the neighborhood evacuated in the late 1970s because of toxic pollution.

All the misfortune causes people to look at the Canadian side, home of the horseshoe-shaped falls on the Ontario side of the Niagara River, with envy.

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