NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. – For the first time in a very long time, there are signs of life in downtown Niagara Falls.
On Rainbow Boulevard, construction crews have been working around the clock to build Mark Hamister’s $35 million Hyatt Place hotel, set to open later this year. The world-famous Rainforest Café opened on Old Falls Street in 2015, and a few years before that, the downtown corridor welcomed the launch of the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute. The Robert Moses Parkway, with its prime riverfront location, will be more accessible due to a reconfiguration project funded through the state’s Buffalo Billion investment program.
In his State of the State speech last week at the University at Buffalo, Gov. Cuomo credited the state’s Buffalo Billion investment for creating $200 million in additional private-sector investment.
Then, as he unveiled the second phase of the Buffalo Billion, the governor announced a proposal for even more state investment.
“We’ll acquire underutilized property in downtown Niagara Falls,” Cuomo said. “So we can free up that land that has been locked up for too long and actually have productive commercial activity developed on it that capitalizes on the growth.”
Cuomo did not specifically mention any sites the state may target as buyers, nor did he describe in detail any plan to purchase properties from current owners in downtown Niagara Falls. He also did not elaborate on the cost of the potential purchases. Plus, this type of proposal would be subject to approval by the state legislature through the budget process this year. The governor’s press office did not respond to 2 On Your Side’s request for information.
Even without specific details, Niagara Falls Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti said the proposal could be “amazing” for Niagara Falls, particularly if the state purchases some of the long-neglected properties in the downtown corridor. Potential targets would likely include the former Native American Center for the Living Arts – also known as the “Turtle” because of the shape of the building – and the One Niagara buildings on Rainbow Boulevard, adjacent to the construction site for the Hyatt Place hotel.
“We’ve been waiting a long time,” Grandinetti said. “We’ve had speculation in the city and nothing has come to fruition. And I think by now, people should understand, things are changing here.”
The former Native American museum, for example, has sat vacant for years under the ownership of Niagara Falls Redevelopment.
Grandinetti, who is the “acting mayor” of Niagara Falls while Mayor Paul Dyster is traveling for a conference, said the Turtle building and the One Niagara building would have limitless potential if the state were to buy them and then find developers.
“They are two of the most important properties in New York state,” Grandinetti said, “because of their location and proximity to the Falls.”
Shawn Weber, who owns the restaurant Wine on Third in Niagara Falls along with multiple other downtown properties, said he’s also intrigued by the governor’s idea.
But he’s not convinced — yet.
“If they want to do things like purchase these properties and reengage them, that's great, but I think that's just a very small step in the right direction,” Weber said. “We’ve heard it before. I can't tell you how many times I've been told by state officials, ‘it's not going to happen overnight.’ Well, I've been hearing that for about 20 years.”
State Senator Robert Ortt, a Republican who represents the Niagara Falls area, told 2 On Your Side in a statement that he cannot take a firm stance until he sees the governor’s specific budget proposal.
“I’ve always been supportive of any kind of development in Niagara Falls and the entire region. Quality jobs, new businesses and a boost in tourism is what we need to help move our region forward,” Ortt said. “However, the governor has yet to release any details about his proposals, so until then, I will remain cautiously optimistic.”
Beyond the downtown corridor, however, Grandinetti said state and local investment must focus on broader areas of Niagara Falls, such as Main Street.
“On the north end of Main Street, and also the La Salle end of Buffalo Avenue, there are some businesses in those two areas that are hanging on and really trying to hang on until they can get the recognition they deserve,” Grandinetti said. “(Downtown) is our tourism area, yes, and we have to take good care of it, but now, we’ve got to start focusing on other areas.”